"I've always had an individualistic relationship to the instrument, almost to a degree of isolation with it. This is a heady statement from guitarist Pat Martino and it seems obvious, coming from a player with such a discernable voice. But, on the other hand, Martino has been often assigned roles and cut facets that are at best limiting and at worst inaccurate. His relationship with Wes Montgomery is well-known, but hardly defines him. Martino is dubbed a Philadelphia guitarist but made his career instead in New York City, having left the former at fifteen. His battle with a nearly fatal brain aneurysm is jazz lore, but he has been an active musician for a longer period after his recovery than before.
Yet Martino is ultimately unperturbed. His demeanor is remarkably focused, his appearance impeccable, his words measured and deliberate, all very much like his wonderful playing. Pat Martino has achieved the enviable state for a musician, or indeed for anybody, where he defines his work rather than it defining him.
Martino, two years shy of his 65th birthday, speaks often about intention. The word reappears throughout his conversation, demonstrating a great deal of time spent in thought about what it is to be a musician, to be a creative person. From childhood, Martino took a particular interest in the personas of those around him. "...from the age of twelve on, he says, "I found it difficult to adhere to the demands and responsibilities that an instructor normally projects into students that are under their guidance. I always found it more interesting to study the person than to study what they were projecting as important education.
One such person was the legendary Wes Montgomery, of whom Martino speaks reverently and who had an enormous impact on the young musician; in fact, Martino's latest album, Remembering (Blue Note, 2006), is a unique tribute to the man. "I found it much more interesting and much more rewarding to take note of his presence as a warm human being, a wonderful person than as guitarist, primarily because his ability to play was so second nature so that there was nothing technical about it, Martino remembers.
When discussing the recent tribute10 tunes written by or associated with Montgomery, yet played in Martino's equally inimitable style, such as "Four on Six, "Groove Yard and "Road Song he states, "Remembering as a project primarily was based upon a culmination of an intention that initially emerged at the age of thirteen. When I was thirteen years old I sat in front of a record, Groove Yard  on Riverside Records, the Montgomery Brothers, and I sat listening to it on my father's lift-the-top record player... I sat there on the floor trying to copy solos and as a child, I hoped that one day I could play like this. I wish I could play like that. And that's what I intended to do when this project came to the forefront. It was to accomplish what I had set out to do when I was a child now that I do have the ability to do so.
"And it's more than just dedication to Wes Montgomery as tribute on the basis of musicianship and respect. It's much more than that. Much deeper than that. ...I was a child trying to figure out what these men were doing and why they did it so well and how they did it so well because that's what I wanted to experience as a dream come true as a child. And so that is what this project has been. It's been the culmination of my own childishness and not only that, the reactivation of it.
In his own educational experiences, Martino approaches teaching the same way he approaches learning. Just as Martino never became one of the many Montgomery clones, he would be loath to unleash any Martino copies into the world. "I find it extremely essential to remind the individual that I interact with how in many ways he or she is completely compatible with some difficult technicalities in their everyday living. He goes on to describe, in even tones and carefully, almost painstakingly, chosen words how he feels that practicing the guitar is like driving a car, something that ultimately must become second nature: "How long did it take you to learn how to drive? And once you learned how to drive, did you ever practice learning how to drive, keeping, as musicians refer to it, your chops together? ...that's what the guitar is for me. It's very much like a pen. It's very much like any of the other utensils in my home.
Martino's pen was first dipped in the ink of saxophonist Willis Jackson, with whom he spent part of the early 1960s, and organist Jack McDuff, in whose group he replaced George Benson, one of the many players to whom Martino is invariably, and simplistically, compared. Shortly after those experiences, Martino became a leader with his El Hombre (1967), the first of several records the twenty-something made for Prestige Records. Many more albums, as well as appearances with other precocious young musicians as diverse as Eric Kloss and Stanley Clarke, followed and, by the 1970s, Martino, shortly after Montgomery's premature passing, became an advanced voice on the instrument, releasing exploratory albums like East! (Prestige, 1968), Baiyina (The Clear Evidence) (Prestige, 1968) and Consciousness (Muse, 1974).
He was involved peripherally in the fusion movement of the 1970s that seemed to sweep up most guitarists, though his approach was tempered by his early experiences with the original electric instrument, the organ. Like many other players of the era, Martino's approach can be conceptually, if not aesthetically, linked to that of another instrumental giant who passed too early, John Coltrane. "I was influenced by John Coltrane primarily because I found it much more profound than the technicalities of his musicality, he says. "I found it much more profound to look closely and think deeply about A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964) than about the scalar modes and the time signatures that this was taking place in. I was more interested in the source of where the music brought this individual in terms of consciousness.
The cover of Martino's 1974 album Consciousness finds the guitarist seated in the middle of a pond, looking intently at the camera, almost past it. On the album are pieces by Coltrane and Martino as well as the Eric Kloss-penned title track. The name would be almost prophetic as, a few years later, Martino lost his ability to play after suffering a brain aneurysm. When asked the controversial question if he is frustrated to be defined by that event, Martino responds with typical zen: "It's much easier to find compatibility with all walks of life and individuals in each of these confronting confrontations physical and psychological throughout life. And to be able to recover is something that we share together in general in terms of our species, under these conditions that we are confronted with in terms of crisis.
In fact, when discussing the years of recovery he underwent, during which time he resettled permanently in Philadelphia after decades of absence, Martino distilled the conversation through terminology. "The years of recovery is not the proper way to define it, he says. "It's much more refined. To go back to the past is a loss, to be honest with you, compared to a refinement and a redefinition, in other words a metamorphosis. So it wasn't recovery; it was evolution taking place.
Since Martino's literal and titular return (the 1987 Muse album which saw him reengaged to music fulltime), he has entered a second, almost more successful era of his development. His style is still hyper-charged and his melodic ideas are still challenging but there is an appealing calm that comes of weathering crisis and being stronger for it.
No one can say what Martino's playing would have been like if it had gone uninterrupted and flashes of old licks are more referential than nostalgic. But one statement, probably the most technical of the conversation sums up this fascinating individual and his current state of mind: "Most guitarists study the instrument through formal architecture which is the study of scalar forms, the study of modes, the study of quite a number of things in terms of sight-singing and everything that goes with the seven clefs in terms of the social musical community. ...I've learned it from a completely different dimension. I've learned it as multiplication, when the piano is taught as addition; I see the guitar as multiplication. And I've learned it self-taught from that perspective. So there are a number of things that are quite different in terms of the reduction of the instrument and its technical demands to simplicity as quickly as possible so that it can reside and take its place as being second nature, no longer offering any interference with your intentions. To use it for what purpose it's important to you for.
Pat Martino, Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery (Blue Note, 2005)
Pat Martino, The Maker (Evidence, 1994)
Pat Martino, Consciousness (Muse, 1974)
Pat Martino, Live! (Muse, 1972)
Pat Martino, Baiyina (The Clear Evidence) (Prestige-OJC, 1968)
Willis Jackson, Soul Night Live! (Prestige-Fantasy, 1964)
Kent Phelan, courtesy of Pat Martino