The title "Formidable" and the striking cover photo of Pat Martino in profile in front of a statue of a lion suggests that the great guitarist is going to unleash awesome powers. However, the proper meaning of formidable in this context is more to be taken as the presence of the master. Here and now, in late career, the lion is content. He displays his supremacy in a group setting. He leads the players in a moveable feast that recapitulates his work of the past while adding a contemporary touch.
The album includes gems from Martino's legendary career best described in his autobiography, Here and Now
(Backbeat Books, 2011), co-authored with Bill Milkowski. The career includes his early days in Harlem and with Willis "Gator" Jackson
's quintet, where he proved himself to be a guitar phenomenon; his early maturity during the psychedelic era; his miraculous return to full form after a devastating brain arterio-venous malformation and surgery, from which he rebounded and nailed turn of the century mainstream and post-Coltrane playing with diverse individuals and groups; and during the last few years, grooming his organ trio with Pat Bianchi
on organ and Carmen Intorre, Jr.
on drums, touring extensively, and adding Alex Norris, Jr. on trumpet and Adam Niewood
on tenor saxophone to form the finely honed ensemble of the current album. This recording is thus a look back, utilizing some iconic Martino originals, hip tunes by Joey Calderazzi, Hank Mobley
, and Gerry Niewood
, and standards by Charles Mingus
, Dave Brubeck
, and Duke Ellington
Martino's playing is, as always, impeccable and at times stunning, but here he places himself squarely in the context of his quintet, with "equal opportunity" performances by the horns and organ. The result is exceptional work by the whole ensemble, spurred on by the guitarist's panache, beautifully structured arrangements, and Intorre's articulate and adaptable drumming. Martino's guitar volume is attenuated and softened slightly, emphasizing humility and lyricism over shock value. The album thus provides a special glimpse of what Martino can do to shape an ensemble. He has developed genuine rapport with these musicians. Martino shines not so much as the dominant force but by virtue of Mahatma Ghandi's maxim, "I must follow them, for I am their leader."
The first tune is Calderazzi's "El Nino," a favorite of saxophonist Michael Brecker
. Saxophone, trumpet, and guitar state the nifty melody in unison, and then, thanks to Bianchi's impeccable organ comping, the distinct feeling emerges of Willis Jackson's soul music quintet that featured Martino and organist Carl Wilson in the 1960s. That group, which birthed Martino, will be recollected in most of the subsequent tracks.
Mobley's "Hipsippy Blues" provides a perfect soul blues vehicle to continue and elaborate the Willis Jackson tribute. Niewood's saxophone is pure soul blues, but Norris' trumpet solo that precedes it has a modern modal feeling. That interaction between blues and post-bop playing continues throughout the album. Bianchi's organ echoes Wilson on the Willis Jackson with Pat Martino
disc (Prestige, 1964).
"Homage," by Niewood's musician-father, Gerry Niewood
, consists of a minor third to tonic two note tune, allowing for rich improvising. So Martino gets loose and creative on his solo, Norris and Bianchi take virtuosic solos, and at the end we hear Bianchi having fun doodling expressively in the high register.
In addition to his other achievements, Martino is truly one of the great interpreters of ballads. Here, he does Mingus' "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love" thoughtfully, and the volume becomes almost hush-hush. Martino's improvisational lines on this track are memorable.
Martino's classic "El Hombre," is from his debut recording as a leader, the 1967 Prestige album by the same name. In this rendition, it is as fresh as ever, and Martino delivers one of his iconic attention-grabbing solos. By contrast, Brubeck's standard, "In Your Own Sweet Way" is done strictly mainstream without the soul blues emphasis. It swings lightly as Brubeck intended it.
"Nightwings" (Martino) from the 1996 Muse album by the same name, is timelessly symbolic of Martino's return after his recovery from the aneurysm. Niewood's solo is an especially inventive fishing expedition.
On Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" Martino kills you softly with the Duke's song. Enough said.
The concluding track,"On the Stairs" is another Martino classic, this time from his album, Consciousness
(Muse, 1975). Martino's solo from that recording has been transcribed repeatedly for study, and no wonder. Martino was doing groundbreaking work at the time. This is pure "signature" Martino. The tune and his playing seem to span his entire career in technique, style, and texture, and the influence of his hero Wes Montgomery
To summarize, this album is leonine, not so much as a frontal attack as a work of consummate artistry on the part of Martino and his group. It recapitulates what has gone before but with a sense of a new dawn. "The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose."