Gene Bertoncini

Sundays and Mondays for the last 18 years at Le Madeleine, the Manhattan bistro on 43rd Street near Ninth Avenue, Gene Bertoncini has sat by the window and played his nylon-string guitar at a volume that does not cast a shadow over the skate wings and lamb-shank pasta.

These gigs blur the line between performance and background music. A few come especially to hear him; there they are every week, rapt at the closest tables. Musician friends might drop by and ignore the fourth wall, talking to him between songs, or sing something with his accompaniment after they?ve settled up. The rest of the diners are there just to eat.

In any case, Mr. Bertoncini, who is 70 and revered among a small subsection of the jazz audience but not particularly famous, has used the gig to practice and refine. Over decades of playing alone, he has developed a signature intricacy in his arrangements. (He also occasionally works with a rhythm section, and many may remember him for his long-running duo with the bassist Michael Moore.)

Monday, as it happened, might have been the final night of his run at Le Madeleine, though you?d never have known it, and Mr. Bertoncini, who is no grandstander, certainly didn?t announce anything. The restaurant has been evicted and is imminently closing; its owner plans to move it to another location in Manhattan, as yet undetermined.

Mr. Bertoncini?s solo guitar repertory is a mixture of durable songs almost every jazz musician knows (the standards ?All the Things You Are? and ?I Remember You,? Miles Davis?s ?Milestones?); Brazilian songs, mostly written by Antonio Carlos Jobim or recorded by Jo?o Gilberto; and watch-works reductions and transformations of classical pieces, like the Puccini aria ?Nessun Dorma.? He brings out the melodies as much as possible but enfolds them in capacious six-string chords and contrary-motion harmony, inserting little runs here and there and using the whole range of the guitar.

On Monday, within these tight arrangements ? they really are recompositions, and none of them go on for more than about five minutes, even the compound ones (of Billy Strayhorn?s ?Lush Life? and ?Isfahan,? or Bill Evans?s ?Waltz for Debby? and ?Very Early?) ? he allowed himself tiny areas of single-note improvising or just playing chords in four-four swing, as if he were a rhythm guitarist. He is conscious that the songs need to breathe a little, even as the solo guitarist?s job is to suggest melody, harmony and rhythm all at once.

And because the performance situation is what it is at Le Madeleine, or was what it was, he could afford to pause after a phrase and think where he wanted to go next, how he might add or subtract a note. This was background music only by virtue of its softness. So long as you listened, you heard a great musician trying to be better.