Two Berklee Guitarists Selected for Prestigious Montreux Competition

Mike Keefe-Feldman
July 1, 2013
Marcio Philomena
Leandro Pellegrino
Leandro Pellegrino
Marcio Philomena

Many guitarists from all around the world dream of securing a spot at the Montreux Jazz Festival Electric Guitar Competition. This year, two of the competition's 10 up-and-coming semi-finalists are Berklee’s Leandro Pellegrino and Marcio Philomena. Both Pellegrino and Philomena are from Brazil. Both came to Berklee with the help of scholarship assistance after applying multiple times, which means both are persistent. Now, both are preparing for what might be the most pivotal performance of their lives. So it’s somewhat surprising that neither Pellegrino, age 29, nor Philomena, 25, seems particularly nervous about the global competition which commences in Switzerland on Thursday, July 18. That might be because making it to the final group of 10 caught these two young guitarists by surprise.

“When I read, ‘We’re pleased to invite you to be a semi-finalist,’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it,’” says Philomena. “I started screaming and jumping around the apartment and stuff. I was really excited.”

The Road to Montreux Runs through Berklee

Each guitarist’s path to Berklee and to Montreux began in Brazil. Born in Sao Paulo, Pellegrino can pinpoint the exact moments when he fell in love with the guitar and with jazz: “When I was 13, I saw Black Sabbath on MTV and Tony Iommi’s solo on ‘Iron Man’ is just amazing. When I saw that, I just got hypnotized. I thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ It just hit me. Then my mom gave me an acoustic guitar and I started taking classes. When I was 16 or 17, my teacher said, ‘Maybe you should listen to jazz,’ and started to introduce me. I got hooked after I listened to John Coltrane for the first time. It just blew my mind.”

Pellegrino soon earned a scholarship to attend Sao Paulo's Souza Lima Conservatory and, as his playing improved, he began eyeing Berklee. He applied for a Berklee scholarship in 2007 and again in 2009. The second time, he received enough aid to make it possible for him to attend Berklee, a revelation that Pellegrino says gave him “the same feeling as Montreux: it’s like you see some kind of door opening. It’s amazing. You almost feel out of your body for a while.”

Philomena also began playing guitar at age 13. Hailing from Porto Alegre, Philomena felt a jolt of inspiration when he heard his guitar teacher playing some Pat Martino transcriptions, a moment that sparked his rushing to a record store to buy the music on CD. He began listening to it religiously. “I was like, ‘This is the thing. This is it,’” Philomena says. “That’s a young age to be interested in jazz so it was really organic and from the heart. I thought it was what I wanted to do for my whole life.” That drive propelled Philomena to apply to Berklee on four separate occasions. The first attempt landed him a spot in Berklee’s Five-Week Summer Program. After that, he applied to attend the college full-time in 2005 and 2006, but it wasn’t until his third attempt, in 2008, that Philomena received enough scholarship help to be able to attend Berklee. Giving up never occurred to Philomena.

“Whenever I used to read my favorite jazz musicians’ biographies, I would see that they went to Berklee,” Philomena says. “Keith Jarrett, (former faculty member) Pat Metheny, and not only jazz players—also pop music artists like John Mayer. I was like, ‘Man, I gotta go to this place.’ I never really thought, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t try.’ So I just kept trying.”

At Berklee, he was able to study with Mick Goodrick, author of The Advancing Guitarist—a book that Philomena calls “basically my bible.” Pellegrino credits Berklee faculty like Goodrick and Danilo Perez, among others, with pushing his guitar playing to the next level. While Philomena graduated last year, Pellegrino is a current student who expects to graduate next year. In addition to Perez and Goodrick, he also notes that Berklee faculty such as Terri Lyne Carrington, Jim Odgren, and Ron Mahdi have all been crucial to helping him improve. Rick Peckham also connected Pellegrino with Jeff Miles, a Berklee alumnus who won the Montreux guitar competition in 2008. Another Berklee alumnus, Jake Hertzog, won it in 2006.

Serious Chops

Despite some similarities in their paths to Berklee and to Montreux, Pellegrino and Philomena approach the guitar quite differently. Pellegrino cites Wes Montgomery as a primary influence but tries to incorporate African percussion–he is engrossed by the rhythms of Mamady Keita–into his playing as a bridge between Brazilian music and jazz. Philomena considers himself more of a world music player than a jazz guitarist. While he draws on influences such as Keith Jarrett and George Benson, his favorite piece of music that he has worked on so far is actually a jazz version of Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower,” and he hopes to blur what he sees as artificial boundaries between the worlds of jazz and pop music.

Watch Marcio Philomena and friends perform “Lotus Flower:"

In order to land one of the 10 slots at Montreux, each entrant had to submit three pieces. Pellegrino recorded and submitted a solo arrangement of “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You;” a version of Chick Corea’s “Steps” accompanied by bass, drums, and vibes; and a trio version of Freddie Hubbard’s take on “You’re My Everything.”

Hear Leandro Pellegrino and friends perform “You’re My Everything:"

Philomena sent the judges a bossa nova version of “Giant Steps,” a slower version that he often plays with his band in Porto Alegre; his recording of the Charlie Parker blues number “Au Privave”; and an original composition titled “A Jornada” (“The Journey”). Based on the outcome, it seems that, in each case, the judges liked what they heard.

Philomena says that being named as one of 10 semi-finalists is “definitely the greatest thing that has happened to me since I graduated from Berklee last year.” Regardless of the outcome of the competition, he looks at Montreux as a chance to make connections with great musicians, a sentiment that Pellegrino wholeheartedly shares.

“Competition and music? There’s really no way to judge art like that,” Pellegrino says. “I’m trying to forget about the competition and concentrate on making music, and hopefully the judges will see that. I have no expectations. I just want to enjoy it.”

Training Montage

They may be focusing on music rather than on competition, but that doesn't mean that Pellegrino and Philomena are approaching Montreux without ambition. In fact, both guitarists are currently in the middle of the most intense training sequence of their young lives. For Pellegrino, that training includes a recent stint at a Santa Fe jazz camp aimed at helping artists find their voice with saxophonist and Berklee alumnus Walter Smith III. It also includes finding a way to let the weight of the competition float off his shoulders.

“A friend of mine and I were talking about it and he told me about this quote from Michael Jordan,” Pellegrino says. “He said that, when he was going to shoot, if he thought of all the people behind him, the ball wouldn’t even get close because there was so much weight. He needed to just be in the moment. So that’s a big part of the last month of preparation: forget about the competition, because music is not a competition . . . That’s going to be the guy who wins—the guy who can be true with music and connect with the audience.”

For his part, Philomena quit his job at a jingle production house in order to focus on practicing for the competition.

“I just want to be physically and mentally ready,” he says. “I’ve been running every day, just to get my body ready to feel more capable and to have more energy. This is kind of like Rocky getting ready for his fight. I’m taking it really seriously and I’ve created a special practice routine for this. I have times to practice certain things and times to listen to music and absorb stuff. And I’m getting together with my musician friends here [in Porto Alegre] to go over the repertoire that I’m playing there and trying to play as much as I can. It’s working out really well. I haven’t been so happy about jazz and music since I was a teenager getting ready for Berklee.”

For these two guitarists–both participants in the Berklee Global Jazz Institute–the 2013 Montreux Jazz Festival Electric Guitar Competition is the opportunity of a lifetime. It is a chance to showcase their chops at the same festival as their heroes: big names like George Benson, Diana Krall, and Take 6, who will enrich a lineup of hundreds that also includes the likes of Green Day, Prince, and Sting. Pellegrino and Philomena have a Berklee cheering section in their respective corners, and Pellegrino says that Berklee faculty have been “giving [him] everything they know.” Pellegrino and Philomena also have each other. While technically competitors, each appears genuinely excited about the other’s presence among the 10 semi-finalists.

“Leandro’s my friend,” Philomena says.

That bond may prove helpful to both Pellegrino and Philomena as they compete against guitarists from Australia, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Ukraine, and the U.S. The competition will be steep, but each guitarist is excited to enjoy the ride, to play his heart out, and to make lasting connections with musicians from across the globe.