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Without Missing a Beat

Jackie Bertone's a Busy Musician--Despite the Day Job

January 19, 1998|RUSS LOAR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jackie Bertone pushes the track selector button on his compact disc player, finding the song on which he plays a riff on the castanets.

He uses the music to illustrate his point about the simple yet essential nature of percussion. The CD is "Stars and Stripes, Vol. 1," a compilation of top country singers performing Beach Boys songs, released in September 1996. The song is "Don't Worry Baby," sung by Lorrie Morgan.

The sparse ripple of his castanets gives the song a signature sound, much like the sound of castanets on the early '60s hit, "Be My Baby," by the Ronnettes.

Bertone also created what's called a shaker track on the recording. It is a soft, percussive sound that comes from the repeated movement of two 7-inch-long cylinders filled with sand. The sound of the sand slapping back and forth against the inside of the cylinder walls continues throughout the entire song in an exact, unerring rhythm.

To play without flaw is just the beginning. The reason the 37-year-old, self-taught percussionist earns about $500 an hour for his recording work is because he finds what musicians call "the pocket," creating a rhythmic groove for the music. He is not on the front or the back edge of the beat, he is locked into the comfortable center, giving a rhythmic stability to the entire tune.

"The smattering of castanets is the nuance of the music, the flavoring. The shaker track is the glue that joins all the various rhythms of the tune together," said Bertone, who lives in Tustin Ranch and works mostly in Hollywood-area recording studios. "The majority of music listeners out there probably don't realize that there's actually a shaker track on every popular song that has a groove."

Bertone owns about 50 different kinds of shakers alone, many of his own creation. Like other top percussionists, such as his mentor Paulino Da Costa, Bertone's artistic goal is to create an original style of sound.

"Record producers hire you because of your unique sound. I do have a certain sound."

His mother gave him a pair of bongo drums when he was 9, to redirect his constant tapping on the furniture and other assorted household items. He taught himself how to play by copying the percussion solos on his parents' records.

"My mother was Armenian, my father was Italian, but we grew up listening to Latin music, to people like Tito Puente, Trini Lopez, something that always had the mambo or cha-cha rhythm to it. I can't tell you how many records I ruined by moving the needle back, over and over again."

By the time he was 19, he'd managed to meet Emilio Castillo, the leader of the band Tower of Power, through contacts he'd made by sitting in with the jazz group Seawind at the White House in Laguna Beach. He convinced Castillo to let him sit in with the band during a performance at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach.

"Emilio had me wait backstage in this room and said he'd get back to me. I was going nuts in there. There was this bowl of fruit in there and I ate the whole thing, just out of nervousness. He finally came back and said, 'OK kid, you're on. You're going to be on for two songs: "Can't You See," and "Squib Cakes." If you can't cut "Can't You See," don't hang for "Squib Cakes." '

"They didn't announce me. They had my congas up on the edge of the stage with a microphone in less than five minutes. They asked me to start the song, which opened with a syncopated funk kind of conga rhythm. We played that song, and Emilio looked back at me and smiled and nodded his head. We played 'Squib Cakes,' one of the greatest instrumentals ever, and we all soloed. They gave me a 12-bar solo and I nailed it. Afterward, you couldn't talk to me. I was floating. Right then was when I said to myself: This is what I was meant to do. This is going to happen."

Bertone kept his day job at a furniture store while he continued to study his instrument and sit in with a select group of musicians and bands. And though he now has about a decade of recording and performing experience with some of the most recognizable names in popular music, Bertone still has a day gig. He's worked for Nationwide Leasing Corp. in Lake Forest for the last 14 years, taking time off for recording sessions and live performances. He says he has an understanding boss.

Bertone is currently finishing up the recording of percussion tracks on the long-awaited solo album by Brian Wilson, the creative force behind the Beach Boys. The as-yet-untitled album is expected to be released by the end of March.

"I'm a colorist, that's what I'm hired for. I like the little nuances and ethereal sounds of things like finger cymbals, wind sounds I can make blowing through little instruments. I have hand-carved whistles from Brazil that sound like actual crickets. I get calls just to record cricket tracks. In percussion, less is more. Some of the greatest percussionists in the world can pick up a stick and a cow bell and do stuff that will just blow you away."

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Profile: Jackie Bertone

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