Berklee Student Wins Montreux Jazz Festival Guitar Competition

By 
Mike Keefe-Feldman
July 23, 2013
Leandro Pellegrino
Leandro Pellegrino at 2013 Montreux Jazz Festival
Leandro Pellegrino at 2013 Montreux Jazz Festival
Leandro Pellegrino

Berklee College of Music guitar student Leandro Pellegrino was named the winner of the prestigious 2013 Montreux Jazz Festival Electric Guitar Competition by the festival’s judges on July 19. Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Pellegrino is a Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI) participant who will enter his final year at the college this fall. In receiving first-place honors at Montreux, Pellegrino received approximately $5,000 in Swiss francs; an all-expense-paid trip to perform in Baku, Azerbaijan; and, perhaps most importantly, an opportunity to record his debut album with studio time and engineers supplied by a Swiss recording studio.

Watch segments of Leandro Pellegrino’s performance at the 2013 Montreux Jazz Festival here:

Among the thousands of guitarists who aspired to make it to Montreux, Pellegrino was one of 10 semifinalists. Although he practiced fiercely, he had no expectations of winning. In the semifinal round, he performed Henry Mancini’s “Days of Wine and Roses” and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” That earned him a spot in the finals, where he delighted the massive international crowd at Montreux with his take on Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight,” Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” and the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” The news still hasn’t fully sunk in for Pellegrino, who gets choked up when talking about Montreux, but he is quick to nod to Berklee faculty for helping him reach this ambitious goal.

“I don’t think I would have been able to win this competition without all the help from Berklee and the teachers,” Pellegrino says. “They’re just as excited about this as me, which is great. I’m pretty sure they will help me with the debut CD also, so I’m just glad I’m surrounded by so many amazing people—not just amazing teachers, but amazing human beings who are humble, who open their hearts and just give me everything they have.”

Shortly after the judges crowned Pellegrino the competition’s winner, the 29-year-old guitarist received an email from Berklee professor and BGJI artistic director Danilo Pérez. Says Pellegrino, “He wrote, ‘Leandro, now there are more challenges. That is what I love about life.’” Those words resonate with Pellegrino, who says, “Just as I prepared for the competition, I feel like preparing for what’s ahead might be what I wanted for my life as a musician.”

Before attending Berklee, Pellegrino studied at Sao Paulo’s Souza Lima Conservatory, where he had earned a scholarship. He says that his acceptance into Berklee with scholarship aid was like seeing “some kind of door opening,” and now he has a similar feeling after Montreux. “Another door just opened and I need to ask advice about how to reach this door from my teachers,” he says.

After the competition, Pellegrino entered an almost surreal whirlwind that took him from no expectations of success at Montreux to suddenly doing interviews for Swiss television and radio.

Watch Leandro Pellegrino perform live for Swiss television channel RTS here:

Next, he traveled to Paris to play with musician friends, and soon he will return to Boston with just enough time to take a shower before heading out to his next gig. Later in the summer, he’ll travel to perform in Panama, and in the year ahead he expects to complete his final two semesters at Berklee, all while assembling material and musicians for his debut album.

It is sure to be the busiest year of his life, but Pellegrino wouldn’t have it any other way. His takeaway from the experience underscores the importance of dedication to one’s music: “No matter how many people say that it’s difficult or you might not reach your goals, just work hard, believe in yourself, and follow your dreams,” Pellegrino says. “That’s what I did, and a couple days ago I just realized that it is paying off.”

Read more about Leandro Pellegrino and listen to his performance of Freddie Hubbard’s “You’re My Everything” here.