The Italian guitarist Beppe Gambetta has a thing for New Jersey. No, really. He loves it here.
“I am in love with New Jersey and that area. I even wrote a tune for Hunterdon County, called the ‘Hunterdon Bolero,’ during one of my previous trips there,” he says in a phone interview from a home in Boulder, Colorado, where he was preparing for a concert.
Maybe he will play that tune during his solo show at the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton on Thursday., October 23.
“The (Boulder) concert is sold out, which is the best possible situation for an artist,” he says in idiomatic, accented, but fluent English. “In my career I have had many collaborations with different artists, but the main thing I am doing now is concerts with solo guitar.”
Gambetta is a flatpicker whose style is heavily influenced by roots and Americana music, a mixed genre that encompasses country, folk, bluegrass, the blues, and Appalachian music. “To play as a soloist using this style, using the pick, is a challenge,” says Gambetta. “But in our age, it is real interesting to come up with a sound that is a little bit different from what other musicians have, and solo flatpicking is very special, so that is why I do solo concerts.”
Gambetta, 56, used to be a teacher and social worker and part-time musician who worked with handicapped children before he decided to go into music as a career. Born in Genoa (Genova), Italy, he is the son of a father who worked in an American Express bank, and a stay-at-home mom. “They were conventional, middle-class people,” he says. When he was growing up in Genova, his parents were classical music fans, but Gambetta was the first musician in his immediate family. “My family was not a family of artists, but they had a good sensibility for art,” he says. “What is so strange is not that I come from a family of artists, but that my son, Filippo, is now one of the most famous Italian diatonic accordionists. [Diatonic refers a style of accordian with a single row of ten buttons.] Instead of having a tradition in my family, I started one. I started a new generation of musicians, and that makes me really happy. I am really happy to perform with my son when it happens. It is a great joy. “
There is not a lot of what you might consider overt Italian influence in Gambetta’s playing. “When I was a teenager, I heard some traditional music from America, and I was turned on to it,” he says. “It is not only the music that calls you, but really important, the great artists that made the difference.”
The artist who made the greatest impact on him, says Gambetta, was Doc Watson, the North Carolina-born guitar icon. “I have spoken with many people, even people in India, who have said they heard Doc Watson and became flatpickers. So it’s a certain kind of American roots music that is so intense that it can call people that are not part of the same tradition. It’s the same thing that happens with flamenco; you can have great flamenco players who are not Spanish, or with tango, where you can have great tango players who are not Argentine.”
Gambetta says he was “called” by the beauty and energy of American music, and by the portrait of America the music painted in his head. “I was also attracted by the dream of knowing other cultures, traveling, going on the road, meeting with other artists, about traveling, and so I did it. Now it is a big part of my life.”
There are a lot of different aspects of American music that have captivated Gambetta, he says. “For sure the richness of the melting pot that generated American roots music is particularly unique. The Appalachian music, the old-time music has come from the melting pot of Irish, and every kind of European roots, and of course the African American as well. This combination is fascinating, and the use of the acoustic instruments. It is particularly fascinating how the roots music artists are able to create a great amount of rhythmic intensity without using any percussion.”
Gambetta cites many of the guitar duets by Doc Watson. “They were so intensely full of energy and rhythm, although he never played with a drummer. All of his great energy came from his great capacity for playing with a syncopated rhythm.”
About 20 years ago, Gambetta decided to quit his teaching job and devote his life to music full-time. “I did something really creative, that no one else actually did, especially at that time,” he says. “I was able to rent a digital tape recorder and traveled all over the United States, trying to meet all my guitar heroes. Some of them were really astonished to see an Italian guy arriving at their door and asking them to play some music on this tape recorder.” Many of these “great, amazing guitar heroes,” says Gambetta, “really adopted me. They understood my passion, and they took me in and encouraged me.”
Gambetta took the tapes home and began studying and playing intensely. He released his first disc about two years into his quest and has been playing folk festivals in America, Europe, and Japan, collaborating with heroes of his including Watson, Norman Blake, David Grisman, Gene Parsons, and Bela Fleck.
He has released 10 discs as well as four DVDs and five instructional books. His latest CD, Rendez-Vous, features musicians as diverse as singer-songwriter Patti Larkin, new-grass musicians Missy Raines and Jim Hurst, French mandolinist Patrick Vaillant, and Brazilian guitarist Marco Pereira, along with his son, Filippo. “Twenty years later, I am here presenting this album because it is sort of a celebration of what we have been able to do here in the United States. Not just my guitar heroes but the range of music.”
Music has therapeutic properties, something Gambetta learned in his earlier profession. “I think the most important aspect of music is the poetic aspect. I found in a lot of old music a lot of poetic aspects that in other kinds of music is difficult to achieve. My goal is not only to be the fast player that astonishes people with hot licks — that is marginal, just a little bit fun. But the main goal of a musician is to approach every note with the soul of a poet.”
Gambetta still lives in his hometown with his wife, Federica, but Gambetta doesn’t get many chances to go there, and indeed, Federica travels on the road with her guitarist husband.
“I do live in Italy, still in Genova, but recently we were looking at our calendar and counting the days we are on the road, and when I am at home. Actually, I stay home around 100 days of the year, and 265 days I am on the road,” Gambetta says.
Beppe Gambetta and Wanamaker Lewis, Thursday, October 23, 7 p.m., Patriots Theater, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Acoustic guitarist and flatpicker from Italy. $25. 609-984-8400.