JAZZ REVIEW : Conti Checks In Alone : Solo Guitarist Uses Seven Strings to Fill Hotel Lobby With Strains of a Trio


You wouldn’t expect to find a world-class guitarist playing in a hotel lobby. But any weeknight, that’s where you’ll find Robert Conti, a musician who certainly fits that description.

The place is the Skylight Lobby Lounge in the Irvine Marriott, and more than once during Conti’s Tuesday session, guests checking in at the front desk turned from their registration duties to see who it was filling the air with sumptuous chord clusters or swift, sure strings of notes. At times, the sheer density of Conti’s sound recalled Joe Pass.

A Philadelphia native who was a childhood friend of guitarist Pat Martino, Conti has a number of albums out on the Trend-Discovery label. His most recent effort is a 1990 quartet date with pianist Pet Jolly, bassist Andy Simpkins and drummer Carl Burnett on the Time Is label called “Comin’ On Strong,” a solid session that spotlights Conti’s compositional strengths and technical abilities. He also has recorded with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.


A longtime resident of Jacksonville, Fla., the guitarist moved to Irvine in 1986. He’s been playing the hotel lounge since 1989, with a short stint at the Newport Beach Marriott. He’s been back in Irvine since August.

Although he plays solo, Conti doesn’t seem to miss the rhythm section. With a seventh string on his guitar, on which he plucks out firm bass lines, Conti constructs both melody and accompaniment, getting an almost orchestral effect. It’s as if he’s his own trio. The slight, electronic haze from his amplification only increases the richness of his sound.

Conti applied these techniques to such standards as “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Witchcraft” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma.” Antonio Carlos Jobim popped up often--Conti claims he knows “99% of Jobim’s music”--including the familiar (“Desafinado,” “Look to the Sky”) and the not-so-familiar (“Andorinha”).

The guitarist put his signature on the material via seductive introductions, witty asides and allusions to other tunes. His playing of “Fool on the Hill” was neither Beatles nor, as one might expect from his fondness for Brazilian rhythms, Sergio Mendes. He framed Van Morrison’s “Moondance” with references to “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” “Moonlight in Vermont” found Conti rushing the season when he closed the tune with a line from “Jingle Bells.”

Pianist Eddie Ambrose, who plays at Bistango every Wednesday and Thursday backing singer Bobby Gant, joined the guitarist for a few numbers. Conti, free from his backup duties, took advantage of the freedom to race through long, melodic lines and to make impressive leaps up and down the neck of his instrument. Ambrose was able to keep up. His solo on “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” was especially satisfying.

Robert Conti appears weekdays from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Skylight Lobby Lounge in the Irvine Marriott Hotel, 18000 Von Karman Ave., Irvine. (714) 553-0100.