Giorgio Serci - Journeys with my guitar
Guitar Journey is the name Giorgio Serci and Jonny Phillips chose for their duo that is on tour in Scotland this week. If Serci ever gets the time to write his autobiography, however, then Guitar Journey would make the ideal title.
There is a line promoters like to use about the Sardinia-born Serci being one of a very small band of musicians who have worked with New Orleans legend Dr John, Dame Shirley Bassey and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. But this is only a small detail in Serci’s story.
He has arranged music for the City of Birmingham and BBC symphony orchestras, performed alongside Russian violin virtuoso Anete Gaudine and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and accompanied Japanese and Indian master musicians Shima Kobayashi, Ryuko Mizutani and Ronu Majumdar. In one particularly hectic spell he completed an Edinburgh Fringe run with English comedian, singer and songwriter Boothby Graffoe, toured with jazz saxophonist Jason Yarde’s evocation of Dr Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech, Let Freedom Ring, and appeared with Jools Holland.
“I’ve always been curious about music and kept an open mind,” says Serci in a Skype call between his daytime teaching commitments and meeting the deadline for his latest column for Guitar Interactive Magazine. “When I was growing up in Sardinia my friends were all listening to Duran Duran and bands like that from the 1980s, and I liked that music too. But I was also lucky in having an older brother who wasn’t a musician but was very knowledgeable about a lot of different music and introduced me to John McLaughlin and Joe Zawinul and songwriters like James Taylor.”
Serci also found music for himself. He became a big fan of Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry and spent hours perfecting Dave Gilmour’s guitar solos from Pink Floyd’s albums.
He was initially self-taught on guitar, following an incident on the local beach when a complete stranger asked if he might play one of Serci’s friend’s guitars. Serci didn’t play guitar at the time but what followed made him decide there and then to try to be just like this stranger and learn to move people with his music.
“I was doing okay by myself,” he says. “I could play things I listened to but after a while I decided to take lessons and I found this classic guitar teacher locally, Marco Meloni, who had studied in Paris and was an expert in baroque music. On the first lesson he told me that what I was doing was all wrong, which was a bit crushing but also not so bad because this was early in my playing experience and he was able to correct things.”
Meloni also encouraged Serci’s inquisitiveness about music and introduced him to South American composers including Argentinian tango nuevo master Astor Piazzolla and Brazilian guitar music specialist Baden Powell.
“I loved playing Bach but I really, really enjoyed Piazzolla and Baden Powell’s music,” he says. “I liked the rhythms they used – I found them really exciting - but also that was when I discovered that I love lush harmonies. Later I went on to study orchestral arrangement and I’ve had the good fortune to work with some great orchestras and hear them play my orchestrations, but it was that moment in my teens that made realise how exciting creating your own music can be.”
After further studies in Ravenna, where he played jazz with guitarist John Scofield, saxophonist John Surman and drummer Tony Oxley, Serci went travelling. In Brazil he visited Bahia, Sao Paulo and Ipanema, returning with a collection of instruments, including a berimbau, the one-string instrument that the late percussionist Nana Vasconcelos always referred to as his “Steinway”, and a set of compositions.
“I’ve always found that travelling helps to stimulate ideas for new music,” he says. “You’re not caught up in day to day things, like paying bills, and in the best situations you get time for yourself without distractions. I’d go back to my hotel having looked around these places and respond to what I’d seen by playing the guitar.”
It was in similar, although also quite different, circumstances that Serci found himself writing his composition Loch Ness some years later. While touring Scotland with fellow guitarist Eduardo Niebla he looked out his hotel window over the loch and the tranquillity of what he saw materialised in a chord sequence followed by a melody.
“You might find this odd but whenever I’ve been in Scotland, I’ve been struck by the similarities between the landscapes of Scotland and Sardinia,” he says. “The mountains make me feel at home and the dry stone walls that you see all over the north of Scotland are something we’re used to seeing in Sardinia. I remember that tour with Eduardo very well because we were playing a lot of quite challenging music, quite rhythmically involved pieces, and in among these concerts there I was with some time on my hands and I just started playing, again responding to what I was seeing. It’s interesting because urban music has to be busy because in the city if you just play a chord and let it ring, you’ll hear a police car siren or something and you feel you have to respond to that. But in a quieter environment, you can capture the tranquil mood of your surroundings.”
In 1994, Serci moved to London to study at Goldsmiths College where he gained diplomas in Jazz and Popular Music and teaching music to adults. Soon after he arrived he met Jonny Phillips and sharing similar musical interests, they became friends, going round to each other’s flats to jam or play whatever music one or the other of them put on a music stand.
It would be twenty years before they actually formed Guitar Journey, a time during which both went off on further travels – Phillips spends a lot of time in Spain and Portugal listening to and playing music – and both formed bands and projects of their own. One of Serci’s many “distractions” included recording with trumpeters Paolo Fresu, a fellow Sardinian, and Kenny Wheeler while Phillips’ seven-piece band Oriole has earned the guitarist plaudits for compositions that capture the essence of Spanish and Latin American music.
“I’m glad in a way that Jonny and I didn’t start playing gigs as soon as we met,” says Serci. “We had time to go off and do other things. We still do that and when we come back we have stronger ideas about the music we want to play.”
While the years between meeting and forming Guitar Journey have allowed both players to acquire significant reputations internationally for their 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,” he says. “It’s a fascinating subject but we don’t want to be giving a lecture. We always aim to be entertaining.”
From The Herald, May 9, 2018.