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Pat Martino: At One with His Favorite Toy

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."

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