Guitar Journey Duet - 2 guitars are better than 1
Jonny Phillips knew as soon as he heard him play that he wanted to form his own guitar duo with Giorgio Serci. It was back in the early noughties and Phillips, a keen student of Spanish music especially and attracted by the prospect of hearing two guitarists working together, had gone alone to a gig in South London. He can’t remember the name of the other guitarist now but after the gig he introduced himself to Serci, a Sardinian who has been based in the UK since the mid-1990s, and the two became good friends.
“I remember thinking, wow, this guy is a real acoustic player with great ideas and a great feeling for the music he plays,” says Phillips, who tours Scotland with Serci in Guitar Journey Duet next month. “I still think he’s my favourite acoustic guitarist in London. There are many electric guitarists who dabble in acoustic and acoustic guitarists who concentrate on speed and showmanship. Giorgio can do all that but he also has a great touch and sense of harmony and he really listens.”
As the two musicians kept in touch and played each other things they were working on, Serci recognized similar qualities in Phillips, admiring particularly his ability to tell a story in a composition and in his improvising. It was quite some time, however, before they, formed an onstage musical partnership.
For one thing, they were both busy with other work. Serci, who has the distinction of having appeared with both New Orleans legend Dr John and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, has a diary full of engagements, projects and deadlines. Jools Holland, Shirley Bassey, Julian Lloyd Webber, Nigel Kennedy and jazz players including the late trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, fellow guitarist Martin Taylor and saxophonist Andy Sheppard are just some of the musicians he has shared stages with and as a composer and arranger he has fulfilled assignments with the City of Birmingham Symphony and the BBC Concert orchestras as well as the Berlin Phil. He also lectures at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford and writes a regular column for a guitar magazine.
Meanwhile, much of Phillips’ time has been taken up with leading and writing for Oriole, the band he formed featuring Scottish drummer Sebastian Rochford, a septet that has distilled his love for Spanish music and Latin American rhythms on three enthusiastically received albums, the most recent being Every New Day. When not working with the band he regularly takes off for Spain and Portugal to immerse himself in and play music over there.
“Oriole is always uppermost in my mind,” says Phillips, “and I love having the instrumentation, with saxophones and percussion, to project my ideas onto. At the same time, I love the two guitar format – it’s much more portable than a septet – and I thought it would be really interesting to put a programme together that traces the history of the guitar, from its origins in Spain and North Africa right across the Americas, and Giorgio is the ideal partner. Coming from Sardinia, which has been enriched by so many other cultures including Arabic, African and Spanish, he has a great understanding of how the guitar developed. He’s also studied Brazilian and Cuban music, which I love as well, so together we can make the guitar’s journey quite widely encompassing.”
For a duo who are clearly very much on the same wavelength, they had quite different spurs to becoming guitarists. Cumbria-born Phillips studied violin and piano before taking up the guitar, inspired in no small part by the late English-based American singer-guitarist Isaac Guillory and his wide-ranging repertoire. Serci, on the other hand, has no idea of the identity of the chap who made him want to take up the instrument.
“Some friends and I were camping back home in Sardinia,” says Serci. “I didn’t play at the time but one of my friends could accompany himself quite well on Italian folk songs. One evening we were sitting listening to him when this guy came along and asked if he might play my friend’s guitar. He picked it up and just blew us all away with this amazing music. And that night I decided I should try to be like that guy, whoever he was. We never saw him again.”
Both men would love to have the same effect as that dazzling stranger on impressionable young ears when they bring their guitar journey to Scotland but while they have gone on to acquire significant reputations internationally for their playing ability and in-depth knowledge of their instrument’s history, their approach to performing, says Serci, is more about communicating how passionately they feel about the music rather than how much they know.
“We have a repertoire that illustrates where the guitar came from and how it travelled across the world,” says Phillips. “It’s a fascinating subject but we don’t want to be giving a lesson. We always aim to be entertaining.”
Jonny Phillips and Giorgio Serci’s Guitar Journey Duet plays Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, Thursday, March 10; Watts, Cupar (11th); Kilbarchan Performing Arts Centre (12th); Birnam Arts Centre (13th); Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (14th); and Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline (15th).
From The Herald, February 24, 2016