“Where’s the bass player? Do you have a synthesizer?”
Those are the two questions guitarist Robert Conti says he gets asked the most these days by people who hear him perform in the Skylight Lobby Lounge of the Irvine Marriott, where he appears unaccompanied Mondays through Fridays from 5:15 to 8 p.m.
The likely reason that listeners query Conti, 47, is that he plays a custom-made eight-string guitar that has the potential range of both a standard guitar and a bass guitar.
“I can get down as low as a bass player, and my voicings are huge, because I cover the entire range of the two instruments,” said Conti, a Philadelphia native who has lived in Irvine since 1988.
Conti said when he works, he does triple duty.
“I play melodies, chords and bass lines all at the same time,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s difficult to explain how I do it. You just have to come hear me.”
On his most recent CD, 1990’s “Comin’ on Strong!” (Time Is Records), Conti reveals the facility, imagination and melodic bent of a first-rank jazz figure who would normally be working jazz rooms around the country. But about the only place you’ll hear the guitarist is at the Irvine Marriott, where, excepting a six-month stint at the Newport Marriott, he has been playing since 1989.
Conti has several reasons for sticking to the Marriott. One is he detests airplanes.
“I have a tremendous fear of flying, so I don’t care to travel,” he admitted matter-of-factly.
Another, and more important reason, is that he has a showcase in the Skylight lounge, a spot where five days a week he can play what he wants, when he wants, to a generally full lobby.
“There’s a lot of freedom,” he said. “I have the opportunity to explore a tune, tinker with the voicings, the harmony. The entire musical scope of a song is open to me since I’m not within the confines of a rhythm section, which is not to say I don’t enjoy playing with rhythms sections; I do.”
Finally, there’s the chance when playing solo to fully appreciate the sound of his instrument.
“I have been enamored with the guitar since I began playing, when I was 11,” he said. “I light up each time I start playing. It does something to me. I feel so fortunate I can play music every night.”
Conti draws his selections from the repertoire of 700 to 800 memorized songs that lend themselves to jazz interpretations.
“I tend toward tunes that have proven durable, that have recognizable melodies,” the musician said, citing such standards as “Moonlight in Vermont,” “As Times Goes By,” “Desafinado” and “How Insensitive.” Conti eschews hard-core jazz numbers such as Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” as inappropriate for the room.
The guitarist, a professional since he was 14, has turned out 11 albums. He said he wouldn’t mind working in jazz clubs around the Southern California area, but only if they call him.
“I don’t feel I should have to sell myself,” he said with candor. “If they don’t know who I am, I’m not interested.”
Conti’s first jobs as a musician were in rock and commercial bands that traveled from his hometown. When he settled in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1966, he shifted to working mostly jazz jobs.
Then, beginning in 1970, he took six years off, becoming a self-taught stock broker and, in 1974, president of a securities brokerage firm. He didn’t touch his instrument. Since then, he has been involved off-and-on in business ventures, including a position as an accounting executive with Beverly Hills-based film producer Dino de Laurentis in the late ‘80s.
Still, there’s nothing like music for self-satisfaction.
“When I took time off from playing, there was something missing in my life, and that was music. They say it gets in your blood. I need to play every day. If I don’t play even over the course of a weekend, I can’t wait to get to the job on Monday.”
What: Robert Conti.
When: Mondays through Fridays, 5:15 to 8 p.m.
Where: The Skylight Lobby Lounge at the Irvine Marriott, 18000 Von Karman Ave., Irvine.
Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south to Michelson Drive. Go right to Von Karman Avenue and go right again. Hotel is on the right.
Wherewithal: No cover, no minimum.
Where to call: (714) 553-0100.