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Pat Martino: At One with His Favorite Toy


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Music has always been latent as a blessing of its own accord. It has been second nature to me as an ecstasy of its own nature.
Pat Martino, he of the quicksilver fingers, the intuitive genius, the beauty of tone, is the type of artist that makes other guitarists shake their heads. But there are other things at work in the magical process. We're not talking about whether the piano is in tune. Not the sound of the drummer. Not the quality of a sideman's solo.

The guitar is an extension of his life, and appears to have always been that. He loves the feel, sound, look and touch of the instrument. "My favorite toy," the 62-year-old calls it with the honesty of a child.

"It's different for each of us. For me personally, nothing works other than me. I work and I enjoy doing what I do because I always do the best I possibly can. No matter what takes place, I know that things are going to work out. My intention is to amplify self-esteem in as many ways as I possibly can. Working is doing the best under any circumstance."

Hearing him in a club is to know that. And hearing his latest CD, the wonderful Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery is to realize the guitarist is special. An homage to one of his greatest influences, the ten-cut disc is a treat from start to finish. He's rightfully proud of it. But it doesn't define him. In this cluttered world of intolerance and trouble and George Bush, his music shines through; an oasis for the soul weary. Pat Martino—having come through life-threatening illness; having come through a brain aneurysm so devastating that in its aftermath he didn't even remember he was one of the great jazz guitarists; didn't even remember friends and family— smiles through both the art of the music, and the smothering dysfunction of existence in the new millennium.

He remains calm. He sees things differently. He copes. All that he has been through has been his road to that point of being at peace.

"A good example would be being at the airport, on my way out to one of the spots on the tour, and being subject to security and standing in a line that's ferocious in terms of its demands upon patience and endurance and tolerance," he says with a knowing calm. "So here, in terms of what I find myself in under those moments, when I'm clear of mind and intention, I find myself amidst one of the greatest studies of virtue there can be. And that is rewarding. So I stand there and try to remain as neutral as I possibly can and feel good about it. It's a re-shaping of something that is very fluid and takes the shape of whatever you pour it into. That's healthy. I like that."

A conversation with Martino makes the immediate impression that it is a discussion with a deep thinker; a man who is living in the same reality, but looking at it from a different angle, and comfortable in his own skin.

"Music has always been latent as a blessing of its own accord," he says. "It has been second nature to me as an ecstasy of its own nature. When it comes to craftsmanship, with regard to being a musician—or an electrician or an attorney, any of these crafts that are in a social context; functional—I see these as one and the same. As a responsibility to participate with values, in terms of interacting socially with other human beings, other individuals.

"But when it comes down to the intention of the individual that utilizes that particular instrument, which is their craft, their intentions determine their reasons for what they do, and in most cases transcend the nature of the craft itself. It's very much similar to: If I were to be totally consumed by the process of musicianship itself, I then would be subject to what most musicians are subject to: a responsibility of practicing each and every day for a number of hours. And I did, when I was younger, due to lack of experiences in a deeper sense.

"I think many of us see it that way. We see it different than a tool, a communication tool. And we see it as a career that is subject to competitive demand. We have to compete. To do so we have to really constantly replenish our physical abilities. That's what practice is all about. On the other hand we have an automobile that we drive. And we never practice putting the key in the ignition. Nor do we practice the gas pedal or the brake or anything else in that particular tool. We don't even think about it until we have a destination to use it for. That's what guitar is to me, similarly. Primarily because it's second nature to me, just like that automobile is. At some point down the line that, too, happened to music itself... It brings me into the opportunity of interacting with others, and some precious moments."

And on stage?

"It all comes to fruition of its own accord, without prior intentions. Sometimes it seems like intentions prior to now, prior to the moment—in other words constructing something for the future, leads toward disappointment in many cases."

Martino is a musician of the moment, a key element of jazz. The guitar is the tool he used to communicate, and he remains fascinated with it, just as he was as a child when he would sit down and figure out how it worked. The same wide-eyed wonderment he must have had when he moved from Philadelphia to Harlem at the age of 15 to find out more about the music and join in the cooperative of the people who were making the important sounds of the time—sounds that are still the cornerstone of what is played today.

In fact, conversation was politefully disrupted for a time in order for the musician to answer his door. An obviously happy Martino returns. "I was waiting for this guitar to come in from Gibson. That's what it was. FedEx. It's very exciting. It's like a little boy with a new toy," he says with a chuckle.

That type of élan is refreshing. It just happens to be the spirit of the music that can be heard on his Wes Montgomery tribute, a cooking album of songs from the Wes songbook.

Martino met the guitar legend when he was fourteen, introduced in a club by his father, who sang in Philly nightclubs. "At that particular age, I had not as of yet experienced participating as a professional in the craft. I still remained within a dreamlike state of perception when it came to the definitive meaning of people in general. Wes Montgomery was the warmest person I had met until that time. So I wasn't really moved as a professional musician, in terms of his artistic presence—although I was completely overwhelmed by his dexterity. I was moved more than anything by the warmth in this particular individual. And that opened up a completely different motif in upcoming definitions of what was important in life."

He calls the tribute "a very honest one" and music "a pool of respect for a great artist. It was literally like a lake, where those particular topics reside within. If you go swim in that lake, it's gonna really swing. Those tunes were hard core Wes Montgomery prior to his marketing success."

Some feel that Montgomery left the realm of mainstream jazz for more commercial music. Martino doesn't see that as a bad thing in that case. He feels Montgomery pulled off things like Beatles covers, "wonderfully, I really do. I have preferences with regard to my own tastes. I think to run the gamut is respectful in itself with regard to how many ways his creative ingenuity provided success at all times."

No commercialism here, however. The band—David Kikoski, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Scott Allan Robinson, drums; Danny Sadownick, percussion—cooks from beginning to end. The groove is happening at all times, whether swinging like mad or on the two ballads.

"Yeah. We were very excited about it. I think it had something to do with respect, due to the fact that the motif was based upon authenticity. That had a great deal to do with the effect it had on each of us—to try to remain as concrete as possible with regard to reanimating that particular segment of our culture."

The disc kicks in right from the start with "Four On Six" which highlights the deep swing of the album. Not only is Martino nimble and hip, but Kikoski is locked in, tearing it up. The pianist is one of the heroes of the album, his playing superb throughout, light and nimble, yet ballsy and groovin.' Like Martino. And the rhythm sections digs and lays it out for the both the soloists and the whole musical concept. "Twisted Blues" cooks. "West Coast Blues" is like a ride along the Pacific highway. "If I Should Lose You" gets a ballad treatment that is dirge like in tempo, but never maudlin. Martino squeezes out notes that hang in the air and deliver the heartfelt sentiment of the song without anything mawkish. The whole thing is a gas.

Martino says there will be some touring done in support of the disc this year.

He says the recording experience was profound, part of "ongoing re-ordering of my lack of retainment-type of memory after the operations" which, in turn, "demanded that I go back and evaluate and analyze as much as possible what I do remember. One of the things that has remained profound is the wishes and dreams of a child and whether or not these have been brought to fruition.

"One of the first things that I remember when it came to Wes Montgomery was the addiction that took place as a child being exposed to such art; such an individual and artist. I sat in front of my father's record player on the floor, overwhelmed with interest in trying to reproduce what I heard coming from the speaker on my favorite toy, which was the guitar. It still is my favorite toy. So I sat there with my favorite toy and played with it, intensely addicted to the process. That's what this album brought me back to. Something I wanted to do as a child was to be able to do what I heard coming from the speakers."

Martino was able to travel back, as it were, to that childhood place. "Which is something most individuals, I believe, rarely achieve. To set out to go back to your childish dreams and to make them come true of their own accord is a form of success that transcends age. That's what this album is all about. It's achieving what I set out to do when I was a little boy. And doing so with respect, not only to its presence at that time, but its presence today with no judgmental critique that in any way is comparative or competitive."

It's been a remarkable journey to that childhood place, and to this place in 2006 with one of the sparkling recordings of the year. It started in Philly where Pat was born in 1944. He was exposed to jazz early through his father. He didn't start playing the guitar until the age of twelve, but it was clear that the instrument was a natural fit to his hands and connected to something else wired into Martino. "It was second nature," he says. He left school in the tenth grade to study music. His father wasn't a direct influence on the instrument. But in playing it, it was a way for Pat to connect.

"I would say that my intention was to move as close as I possibly could to the individual position in our relationship that demanded respect from him, based upon his own interests. The guitar was his greatest interest when it came to the instruments. As a child, I was looking for participation in respect with elders. That's what I noticed when I met Wes Montgomery and when I went to Harlem at the age of fifteen and was, in a sense, guided and protected by my elders, with respect to an innate talent. It has transcended music from the very beginning.

"My main concern since conscious childhood was to participate with elders and to be adequate in terms of that participation—for them to understand my opinion. In some ways it seems egotistic, and I guess it is, to some degree. But it was essential for me to do that."

Martino was largely self-taught, but did go for some training with a local musician, Dennis Sandole. However, the guitarist doesn't see it as "training" as such. Again, in his unique view, it was something different. A gaining of knowledge, but not in the traditional sense.

"I had the opportunity of being in the presence of older individuals, generation-wise, and studying them, not what they were teaching," he says. "I studied their apparel. I studied their surroundings, their environment."

With Sandole, "that's where I met John Coltrane and Benny Golson and Paul Chambers; quite a number of artists. I was supposedly to be there to study what Dennis Sandole gave me as a weekly lesson. And I found that absolutely impossible ... I would study what he wore and why there was a copy of a Van Gogh on the wall. And why the guitar over in the corner had dust on it, and the piano was clean. ... I studied these things in depth, with regard to their meaning and how that produced so much respect for this individual. That's what I studied."

At the age of 15, he was playing lounge gigs in Philly, sitting in where he could, usually accompanied by his father. His first road gig was with jazz organist Charles Earland, a high school friend.

"At that time Charlie was a tenor player. We went to Atlantic City together to a place called the Jockey Club," Martino recalls. "Down the stairway in the basement was a little club. In there was an organist, Jimmy Smith. When we heard that, Charlie gave up the tenor saxophone forevermore. He wanted to be an organist and that's what he did. We started getting together in the garage across the street from his parents house. We practiced and put a little trio together. Charlie could only play in C minor, god bless his soul. He would have the left hand together, and he'd comp with the right hand in C minor. I would have all the melodies to play across the C minor blues."

It was this association with his old friend that was a step to bigger things, especially when the trio booked a gig in Buffalo, NY. "Recently I described this to someone and got a flashback and remembered the name of it. The place was the Pine Grill. We went there and played. One evening, in came an entourage of people from one of the shows in town. That was Lloyd Price and his manager and a lot of people from the big band. They sat at the bar and listened. Lloyd Price called me over. I was 15 years old. And he said, 'Listen. If you ever want to play with a great big band, here's my number. Call me. I'm in New York City. You've got the job if you would like to do it.

Martino followed up on the offer, with blessing from his father, who spoke with Price. He wound up in Harlem with Willis Jackson and played with both on and off for a number of years.

"It just so happened that at that time in Lloyd Price's 18-piece big band, the arrangements were being done by Slide Hampton. And in the band was Jimmy Health, the Turrentine brothers, Stanley and Tommy, Red Holloway was in the band. Charlie Persip was the drummer. Julian Priester was in the band. It was a band of all-star jazz players. We would play for an hour or an hour and a half sometimes—just the band with some really modern jazz arrangements, original stuff. Then Lloyd would come out for one half-hour or 40 minutes and do a show.

"Whenever the band wasn't working, everyone went in their own direction. That's where I would perform with Willis, or Jack McDuff, or Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons. It was a great time in our culture. Very volatile."

For the young Martino, his age didn't matter, nor did the rigors of everyday life a teenager would have to encounter in the big city. His elders looked after him. And he was where he wanted to be.

"I lived in a dream and jazz was heaven. Jazz was Disneyland to me. I wanted to meet these people. I wanted to meet Jimmy Heath. I wanted to meet Jimmy Smith. I wanted to meet Wes Montgomery. I wanted to meet Les Paul. A lot of people. All the people who, as a little boy, I looked up to. The stars. The successful ones; the dreams come true."

His reputation among jazz giants grew and he could count among friends the likes of Les Paul and George Benson. The youngster was in the middle of a burning jazz scene and he had many influences on guitar.

"The first was Les Paul. The second was Johnny Smith. The third was Wes Montgomery. In between Johnny Smith and Wes Montgomery were influences that were not as profound as the three that I mentioned, but just as powerful in their own way," he says. "One of those was Hank Garland. Another was Howard Roberts. Another was Joe Pass. These six players on the guitar were major influences to me. ... Aside from the guitar, my main influences were Donald Byrd and Gigi Gryce. Gerald Wilson with the big band. More than any of the influences mentioned, the greatest influence to me was John Coltrane. There were many things."

The gigs were steady, the Big Apple generally welcoming and Martino was among the finest of his craft. He played with the likes of Sonny Stitt. A gig with John Handy took him to California, where he also started doing some teaching. He was signed by Prestige and recorded a string of albums including El Hombre (Prestige, 1967) and East! (Prestige, 1968). But in 1976, at the age of 32, the headaches started. Severely. And there were blackouts.

"It brought things to a halt by 1977. At least in terms of performance. Then I moved to California, to Los Angeles, and took a position as part of a faculty," says Martino. But troubles continued. He was misdiagnosed as manic depression, even schizophrenic. Wrong medications. Electric shock treatments. Confinement in a psychiatric ward and close to suicide. There were periods when he could function, but continued problems landed him in the hospital. The brain aneurysm was discovered.

Operations in a Philadelphia hospital left the artist in a coma. The brilliance of his creative energy, it appeared, was at an end. His very life hung in the balance. But Martino did not succumb. He awoke. He lived. He was discharged.

But he did not recognize a soul. Not his parents. Not his friends. He didn't know he was a guitarist, much less one of stature. Martino went to his parents home to recover, but amnesia made the process painful. His father showed him copies of his albums. Showed him the instruments. Friends like Les Paul called. While memory slowly came back, Martino's desire to play did not. In fact, if anything, he was repelled, feeling that he was being pushed into something in which he had no interest. Dark times continued.

"That was very painful. It produced a very painful situation for me, because I was recovering at Mom and Dad's house. Because of this, I was subject to and had to endure listening to my old records come through the floor when I was upstairs in my own little bedroom in isolation. I heard my father playing my records. I didn't want to hear that. I didn't like it. I saw the albums and I saw the guitars and I saw a responsibility of something everybody wanted me to do. And I didn't feel that I had to do that, to please them. I had a lot pain going on and I didn't want to please anyone. I wanted to overcome the pain and hopefully at some point enjoy being alive. So that's what it meant, my albums and my career and all of that. I didn't really want to get into it."

It wasn't anyone's prodding that brought Martino back to music. He went back on his own. Maybe music met him half way.

"Finally it got so painful," he says simply, "that I went into the guitar itself. It was the only thing that started to become enjoyable. It turned into an ecstasy once again."

"In its profundity," Martino explains matter-of-factly, "it produced the very thing that caused me to play to begin with. That was to get away from all the things that I was supposedly responsible to do. That's what children are interrupted with.

"You have a child who is totally in ecstasy; playful, creatively objective at all times; even subject to creativity. Along comes the parent, with loveable responsibility, and says to the child, 'Stop playing and do your homework.' That to me was an interruption in the ecstasy itself, and I think it is for each and every individual in the growing process. Those who adjust to the oncoming responsibilities to participate in a social architectural framework, and be utilized for purpose that is separate from the individual. These take their place within that household, in that factory, in that industry, in that society, within that culture.

"What took place when I forgot everything was the beginning, once again. It was the black border erased. It brought me to where I was in the very beginning. The only difference was, due to the compassion and the concern of so many others around me during that recovery period, it became clear I was in bad shape. I didn't realize whether I was or I wasn't. But everybody seemed to think that I was. This produced pain. That's why I had to recover and that's what I had to recover from. Procrastination on my behalf caused the pain to amplify beyond belief. That caused me to run toward the one thing that I ran to before when I was a child: my favorite toy. I lost myself in that. I procrastinated on a decision to be career oriented with that toy again, for the second time. Until I saw there was no difference in playfulness, whether it be publicly, or privately, isolated. It made no difference the second time through. Primarily because I was not participating. I was not entering back into it with a competitive intention. My intentions were totally self-rewarding."

It wasn't easy. There were still medications and therapy and problems with pent up anger, he says. Martino did not have to study the guitar, did nothing academically. Part of his therapy was using a computer graphics program. And the music returned. The dexterity returned. The creativity returned. In the late 80s, he was back performing, including the aptly named album The Return (Muse, 1987). But there were some setbacks, including the death of his parents months apart in 1989 and 1990. Still, music prevailed. Martino prevailed. With pianist Jim Ridl he recorded again, producing works like The Maker (Evidence, 1994). He was back, musically.

But poor health of another kind appeared. He got severe pneumonia, chronic bronchitis and emphysema and lost a tremendous amount of weight. Doctors felt a lung transplant was in order, but his wife, Ayako, who he met in Tokyo in the late '90s, refused and took him under her wing. Alternative methods of care that included an organic, all-vegetable diet, and yoga. He says he went from about 86 pounds back up to 165 in about five weeks.

In 2000 he was touring again, and recording for Blue Note Records, who had signed him a few years earlier. "Yeah. Back to recording, back to social interaction and the enjoyment of old friends, artists in many different fields who were inspirational and stimulating. That's where it sits today."

The rest has been a succession of good records, outstanding performances, and carrying on life as a creative artist. His latest recording is a testament not only to Wes Montgomery, but also to how far Martino has come, and to the strength of his artistry.

Martino doesn't really concentrate on future projects, preferring to take life as it comes.

"I've always found it difficult to describe something that does not exist, primarily because in doing so, there is a lack of a concrete result," he says. "There are things I would love to do. I would love to do something with strings. Whether or not this can come about budget-wise is another story.

"So I have no idea what's coming next. It comes of its own accord. It comes as part of the growing process. So I let it rest and be what it wants to be when it wants to appear."



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