Live From Zanzibar Blue: Pat Martino Quintet

Victor L. Schermer By

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The Coltrane influence is present in the complex turns of phrase, inventiveness, and occasional simultaneous improvisations.
Zanzibar Blue
Philadelphia, PA
October 11, 2003

Without it being spoken, guitarist Pat Martino’s gig at Zanzibar Blue on October 10 and 11, was, in a certain sense, Philadelphia’s way of honoring this musical legend on his own home turf. These two nights were extraordinary for a jazz club- something powerful, warm, and loving was in the air. Pat’s quintet played to standing room only crowds for both sets on both nights, and, in addition to the presence of the jazz aficionados, guitar players, and Martino groupies, there were many entertainment-seeking couples and local South Philadelphia folks who came wearing their Saturday night best. Pat’s beautiful Japanese wife, Ayako Asahi, accompanied him during the breaks, lending grace to the occasion. Earl Brown, the suave and sophisticated emcee, introduced the group by saying they wanted to be sure to play in Philadelphia as part of their current national and world tour. It was more than that. There was a genuine feeling of love in the room, and Pat acknowledged the “specialness” of the evening in his closing remarks.

I’d never attended Martino gig in person before, but had listened intently to several of his recordings, including a relatively early one, “We’ll Be Together Again,” and his latest for Blue Note, “Think Tank.” While I marveled in these recordings at his technical skill, hard driving precision, unique sound, and other qualities that have perennially put Martino in the top echelon of jazz guitarists, he is, in my opinion, a musician whom you must see and hear in person to fully appreciate the intensity and beauty of his unique musical expression. Pat is a genuine product of and contributor to the 1960’s “hard bop” movement (as well as several of its later derivatives) and undoubtedly its premier innovative guitarist. The special creativity and intensity of that era, with such geniuses as Monk, Coltrane, and Miles Davis, resonates in Pat’s playing today (miraculously, even after suffering amnesia due to an aneurysm in the 1980’s and having to reconstruct his musical skills from scratch!) For instance, when the group performed Coltrane’s “Africa,” the evocation of Coltrane’s spirit was undeniable. And in a Martino original, a slow meditative ballad entitled “Welcome to a Prayer,” one could almost hear echoes of Miles’ minimalist and modal emphasis on certain notes and phrases, with Martino weaving them into a fabric of thoughts, emotions, and a suggestive kind of narrative.

Martino’s persona is one of humility, gentleness and warmth. When he leads a group, it is as if sometimes he’s walking on air, and sometimes on water! One wonders how someone so “light” can get such discipline, precision and driving force- not to mention creativity- from a group of sidemen. The answer seems obvious- it’s his and their (being well chosen by Pat) skill and mastery. However, there may be another source of the dynamic that Martino generates: the combination of understated demeanor and exquisite mastery may mean, Zen-like, that there just isn’t any other way to perform with a guy like this than to throw everything you’ve got into it. (The only other option is to be left behind after the first downbeat!) Even a relative newcomer like the very talented bassist Jeff Pedraz performed like a seasoned musician in this context, perhaps mirroring Martino’s emergence at a young age. Performing just a short block away from the Kimmel Center, these gentlemen- Martino, Pedraz, David Kikoski on piano, Michael Pedicin, Jr. on tenor sax, and Scott Robinson on drums, performed with a musical sound and virtuosity that can withstand comparison to the classical masters of their instruments at the Kimmel, i.e. the Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m something of a perfectionist, and rarely fully satisfied with what I hear, but I was in “seventh heaven” listening to this group. They were totally “with it” on this gig. It was a special pleasure to hear the kickoff of a tune like “Phineas Trane,” a straight ahead rapid fire line reminiscent of Charlie Parker, played by Martino and Pedicin with such synchronicity that you think it’s one instrument. This sort of precise coordination itself generates energy and excitement. And a sense of wonder, as well: how on earth can they do that so well?

In the set that I attended, the group did the following tunes (composer in parentheses):

  1. The Phineas Trane (Harold Mabern)
  2. 13 to Go (Pat Martino)
  3. Earthlings (Joe Ford)
  4. Welcome To A Prayer (Pat Martino)
  5. Africa (John Coltrane)
  6. Mac Tough (Pat Martino)

“The Phineas Trane” (a pun pronounced the “finest” Trane) and “Africa” are from Martino’s “Think Tank” CD, just released on October 7. The Coltrane influence is present not only on the CD but also in the Zanzibar set, in the complex turns of phrase, inventiveness, and occasional simultaneous improvisations. These days, my impression is that Martino is taking his “hard bop” roots and pushing the limits of technique and concept to see what kinds of structures and integrity can be developed. In one sense, the set could have been heard at the Village Vanguard in the 1960’s, but the improvisational skill and complexity of movement is taken to another level. While some may wish for a more “modern” sound, I personally like the historical and musical continuity, and the echoes of a time when many of the sets (some recorded and some not) by so many cutting edge musicians were making musical history.

A few notes about the sidemen:

Kikoski, the pianist, a Criss Cross recording artist, has worked extensively with drummer Roy Haynes’s group, as well as many of the other greats of the jazz community in the U.S. and Europe. His solos bear some echoes of McCoy Tyner, but he has a style and concept all his own, which also nicely complements Martino’s.

Pedicin, the tenor sax, is a seasoned veteran who performed with Dave Brubeck (1982) and several key big bands. He brings to the group a rare combination of precision and passion. Interestingly, he is a sort of multidisciplinary “renaissance man,” holds a PhD in Psychology, and runs a counseling service especially for members of the arts.

Pedraz, on bass, received the 2003 Newcomer/Gerber Award in jazz. A local musician with connections to Bucks County and Princeton, NJ, Pedraz has a beautiful sound and articulation, and importantly for a bassist (Gerry Mulligan, for example, said he was always listening to the bassist as much as the drummer), he seemed to be right on top of the music at every point in time.

Robinson, an astounding drummer, did the European tour with Pat in 2002. His solos were hard driving, and yet beautifully crafted. Although his sound is heavier than Elvin Jones (whose isn’t?), he thoroughly exemplified Elvin’s precept that the drums need to be thought of as a single instrument, not a percussion section. He is nothing less than a perfect drummer for Martino, because he drives the group intensely like a souped up Mack Truck, yet, paradoxically and delicately, he never intrudes on the other musicians.

At the end of October, Pat and the group head to Ronnie Scott’s in London. Pat will also join the fabulous pianist, Jim Ridl, in Duet concerts at the jazz festival in Cork, Ireland. In addition, Pat will be presenting clinics and master classes on his journey. Then Pat heads for St. Louis and the West Coast, where he'll play at the famous Yoshi's in Oakland, CA, November 13-16. Martino and Ridl are also booked for the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. I imagine this Duet is going to make some waves and turn some heads. Excitement is in the air.

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