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Pat Martino: In the Moment

Pat Martino: In the Moment

Courtesy Arnie Goodman


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In memory of Pat Martino who passed on November 1, 2021. This article was first published at All About Jazz on January 12, 2018.

Legendary guitarist Pat Martino is devoted to living in the Here and Now! -coincidentally the title of his autobiography (DaCapo, 2011). Taking each moment as it is and adding full measures of love and spirituality, Martino is now well into his sixth decade as one of the most revered and sought after jazz musicians on the planet. The cover photo of his new CD Formidable (HighNote, 2017) shows Martino posing next to the statue of a lion, a symbol of both his awesome power on the guitar and his inspiring recovery from brain surgery and memory loss in the 1980s.

The last time All About Jazz interviewed Martino was in 2008, following the release of Ian Knox's indie film Martino Unstrung (Sixteen Films) in which he appears with fellow musicians and neuropsychologist Paul Broks discussing his life, music, emergency brain surgery to remove an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), and remarkable comeback from retrograde amnesia. We wanted to catch up with him to learn what has been taking place in the last decade, as well as to explore in depth his rich fund of ideas about life and music, including the theory of guitar he teaches in his master classes and videos.

Over the years, Martino has developed a fascinating perspective on the relationship between music, mathematics (geometry and algebra), and spirituality. His memory loss from the brain surgery made him acutely aware of the importance of living in the moment. He took something negative (memory loss) and turned it into something positive (living fully with love in the now.) We visited Martino at his long-time home in South Philadelphia with the excitement and joy of meeting the master one more time.

All About Jazz: The last interview we did was in 2008 when the film Martino Unstrung came out. Could you fill us in about what you've been up to since then?

Pat Martino: So much has happened that I can't begin to give all the details. Besides, once I've done a performance, it just about disappears in my memory. People can find my future and past performances listed on my website.

AAJ: I see there that you've been playing a lot of gigs around the world. Has it been mostly with the trio with organist Pat Bianchi and drummer Carmen Intorre and the quintet with trumpeter Alex Norris and saxophonist Adam Niewood added?

PM: Yes, both. The trio has been to Europe, but the quintet hasn't as of yet. There's more work coming up following the release of the quintet's new CD, Formidable. We're getting a lot of requests for the quintet to perform.

AAJ: From seeing and hearing the quintet several times at Chris' Jazz Café here in Philadelphia, I get a feeling that you really love working with them. I sense the pleasure you feel when you're on stage with them. Am I right?

PM: Yes, I really enjoy what we're doing together. It's an excellent band, so mature. Their accuracy and commitment are very rewarding for me.

AAJ: Would you say that you've been trying to find a band like this for a long time?

PM: To be honest with you, I don't search for bands. I'm really focused on the moment, and typically I find that what happens spontaneously turns out to be just what I'm looking for. That's how I live my life generally.

AAJ: How did you meet these guys and decide to have them work with you?

PM: My manager, Joe Donofrio, put the word out that we were looking for horn players, and then Pat Bianchi brought them in. Pat has contact with quite a number of players.

Working with Hammond B-3 Organists, Then and Now

AAJ: A propos of the instrumentation of both the trio and quintet, to my knowledge you're one of few guitarists who often prefers to work with an organ rather than piano and bass. Of course, this goes back to your early years with organists in Willard Jackson's and other groups. But you've hooked up with a number of organ players consistently over the years, so what draws you back to that instrument?

PM: Besides the practicality in terms of touring and economics, I love being backed chordally and comped harmonically when I'm soloing. I love the harmonic "wall" of ideas that an organist like Pat Bianchi can give me. So a trio with the Hammond B-3 organ and drums does it all for me.

AAJ: You like that wall of sound behind you.

PM: Yes, I like the harmony. But in some ways, it presents a dilemma, because in jazz, the culture that brought the organ into vogue no longer exists. It's not like it was in the 1960s when you had all of the organists around and a working environment in which they thrived. Like when Jimmy Smith was around, Jack McDuff, Don Patterson, Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts. Those were the days when the combination of organ and guitar was hot, and many venues were available at which to perform.

AAJ: And you hung out with a particular circle of organ players in Harlem and elsewhere.

PM: I can remember two week engagements seven nights a week, six to seven sets a night with those guys!

AAJ: That's practically unheard of today.

PM: Nowadays, it's a single performance in a concert hall. It's so fast and so empty in comparison with what happened then.

AAJ: Back then, you could play at a jazz joint and immerse yourself in the music all night long and days at a time.

PM: It was true back then. Now they move you out from show to show. I don't recall doing any engagements for a full week in recent years.

AAJ: Everything is faster today. We get snapshots and sound bytes of music and other things instead of really being immersed in it. So, in any case, the B-3 organ continues to be an important component of your groups. Which brings us to your new CD, Formidable, which is an organ quintet recording—not unlike the bands from your earliest days.

The Difference Between Recording and Live Performance Speaks Volumes

AAJ: I'd like to ask you about a difference between the live show at Chris' and the CD. At Chris' your sound was louder and more prominent than in the CD, where it is of lower volume, almost taking a back seat compared to the other instruments. Your playing is masterful, but sound-wise, it feels as if you are deferring to the other instruments. Is that an accurate perception on my part?

PM: Sure, I think so. To begin with, any recording loses part of the essence of a live performance. In the studio, there's no audience, you've got earphones on, and the music is a one-time project as opposed to an extended social experience. There are many differences between live performances and studio recordings, so I don't think they should be compared with one another. They're two different animals.

The main things I'm concerned with in all situations are precision and rapport, but when the environment changes, the elasticity of the output of the collective group changes as well to fit the particular situation.

Let me use the example of the sound check. When you go to the sound check, you set up the stage, instruments, and microphones, and briefly go over some of the performance. Then you come back to do the performance, and now the environment has changed. The house is full, the place is packed, sold out. And now the sound you worked with at the sound check no longer exists! Therefore, one of the things I think is essential is to be free of expectations from the past! The only thing that's realistic is now. That's one of the reasons I think it's futile to carry the baggage of past performances. To me, the most valuable performance always takes place now.

AAJ: With a recording, the "now" is when you're playing. But then, the recording has to be further mixed and mastered. Did you participate in the mixing process? [Mixing is when the sound engineer adjusts the volumes of each channel to get the best sound and balance.—Eds.] Did you reduce the volume of the guitar sound?

PM: I did participate in the mixing.

AAJ: The point I'm trying to make is that the album title and cover photograph of you next to a lion suggests that you're going to come on really strong! By the way, what was the location of that photograph?

PM: It was taken in Rome at one of the older historic hotels. The statue was inside the lobby next to a stairway. Those photos were taken by photographers from Vogue magazine. 1 think that was done around 2000 or 2001. Joe Donofrio loved that photo.

AAJ: Joe really got involved in this album, didn't he?

PM: Oh, he loves it!

AAJ: OK, but my point is that the title and cover suggest how powerful you are as a guitarist, but your sound is more attenuated than it usually is. The recording really emphasizes the ensemble as a whole. Did you plan it that way?

PM: It was a collective outcome. There were many aspects of the recording process in which I didn't participate, which was also true of my album, Remember (Blue Note, 2006). I don't get involved in some details of a recording. I let the engineer do his thing, and everybody else chips in their ideas. I'm not as involved in the recording process as I used to be, but at the end when it's complete, I'm often surprised by how I love the way it came out. I was very happy with the outcome of Formidable.

AAJ: It's a terrific album.

PM: It's gotten great reviews and is very high up in the charts. But if I tried intentionally to achieve that result, it wouldn't happen.

The Present Moment: Recovering and Living in the Now

AAJ: You place such great emphasis on the here and now and letting things happen rather than trying to control them. You're so much into the present moment. Do you ever look back on your career to see the different phases of it the way some fans and critics do?

PM: No, I take each day on its own merits. When I get up in the morning, I sit at the edge of the bed for a while, get into the immediate reality, and then I'm ready for the day. I then attend to each and every moment as if it were the only one. I'll make a cup of coffee, and I'm not thinking about the rest of the day like a lot of people do. I'm thinking about that delicious cup of coffee. I pay attention to now, and everything falls into place! To me, that's realistic, that's what it should be. I think there would be a lot less problems for all of us if we just paid attention to what's right in front of us. Instead of wishing and hoping, we should just pay attention to every moment.

AAJ: Let's talk about your AVM, arteriovenous malformation, the damaged blood vessels in your brain that led to a seizure and life saving surgery, and your remarkable comeback after losing virtually all your memory. Much of what happened was documented in the Ian Knox film and in your autobiography. I think your fans would like to know how you're doing now.

PM: I'm doing very well. I rarely even think about it, but there are times when certain conditions from that event re-emerge. I'll get a wave of recollection of what used to be: a sort of seizure feeling that sparks out from God knows where. But it passes. Occasionally I have these surges, but not that often.

AAJ: That's not a medical event like a real seizure, but a memory of what happened?

PM: I think it's more of a memory.

AAJ: It could be a flashback.

PM: I think so.

AAJ: What was most striking to me about the uncanny recovery of your guitar artistry was a crucial moment when your friend, former roommate, and student John Mulhern came over to your house in Philly with his guitar. I think it was at the request of your father, with the idea of trying to get you interested in the guitar again. There was a moment when Mulhern mentioned a time when you disagreed with him, where he preferred a major 7th chord in a place in a tune, and you preferred a minor 9th chord. Suddenly, you grabbed the guitar, and said something like, "Hey, let me show you what I mean!" And you started playing again. My understanding is that up to that time you had no recall of the guitar, and then all of a sudden everything started coming back.

PM: Yes. What he said really captured my attention. And the instrument participated in its significance. And maybe that's what triggered it to re- emerge: the moment that I picked up the guitar.

AAJ: So after that moment, things started coming back to you rather quickly?

PM: Very much so. It had something to do with a change that occurred in my understanding of music as a result of the AVM, surgery and memory loss. Prior to that time, music to me was a science, intricately interwoven piece by piece, scale by scale. It was about many details that I had to put together when I played. After the operation, it became enfolded into a simplicity based upon similarities. The more I saw those similarities, a oneness began to take place in my mind. I had a new perspective, a new way of evaluating everything. Instead of parts, I began to see it all as one. I started seeing all the opposites as one. It was day and night, man and woman, major and minor. I saw everything from a distance, from the outside, no longer falling prey to the elusive nature of a "Catch 22." Before all this happened, my life was a "Catch 22." There was always a snag. I never enjoyed anything much.

Part of that "Catch 22" was a result of being misdiagnosed as mentally ill before they identified the AVM as the cause of my symptoms. I'd feel a little better on medication, and then the symptoms would come back without explanation. After the correct diagnosis and the surgery, I began seeing everything from a larger perspective where everything was interconnected, everything was one. So that's what happened in my encounter with John Mulhern. He preferred a major chord and I liked minor. But, as I tell my students, those chords are part of a larger whole, which I perceived at that moment.

AAJ: It sounds as if in that split second, your mind grasped the music from a higher level of consciousness that allowed you to enter it again. It fits with the neurologists' idea that the intact parts of your brain had stored the information that you lost from the left temporal lobe.

PM: I tend to agree with that. I saw the whole musical staff, from the clef signature to the end, and it became in my mind a circle in which there was no longer a beginning or end, but a unified whole. I felt I was dealing with the whole of the music from a distance.

AAJ: Wow! It reminds me of a book you once mentioned to me, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes (HougtonMifflin Harcourt, 1976). One of the main points of that book is that consciousness arises from the connection between the two cerebral hemispheres. It sounds like when you made that connection, the two sides of your brain interacted, and your consciousness of music returned!

PM: That connection is like turning a straight line into a circle. Then it all becomes like the points on a compass: north, east, south, and west. Or like the hours on a clock.

AAJ: Is it possible that many people have trouble grasping the big picture because they see everything as a straight line rather than a circle?

PM: They see the circle briefly and invisibly, at certain times in their lives. Like on New Years Day, they suddenly see the whole year in perspective, in a circle.

AAJ: The neuroscientists in a recent study published about you [Galarza, M. et al. (2014). Jazz, guitar, and neurosurgery: the Pat Martino case report. World Neurosurgery, vol. 81, no. 3-4 (Mar-Apr), p. 651] looked at your recovery from the standpoint of anatomy -which parts of the brain were removed and which were left intact. For example, your many years of playing while you had the AVM undiagnosed, may have meant that the other hemisphere stored a lot of information to compensate for the malfunction in the region of the AVM.

I'm thinking there was an additional factor that the neuroscientists don't talk about so much. Going back to the 1960s, you always have had a larger perspective—let's call it "spiritual" or perhaps "mathematical" -in which your brain stored the information holistically (what you call a "circle"), so that once you saw a small part (the two chords with Mulhern), the whole musical world came back into view for you. That's what the neuroscientists call "functional connectivity," the cooperative interaction between different parts of the brain that control cognition, language, music, etc.

PM: That's a good way to look at it. It was like a rebirth of the essence of my whole self, of what I truly am. When I was a kid, I was totally attracted to the guitar my father gave me, like a kid who always wanted to drive his dad's car! Then he learns to drive the car, and the car and he are inseparable. But if the car breaks down -like after I had the surgery -the driver now realizes he's separate from the car. He sees the car outside of himself and that he can get another car or take the bus, so he's no longer so attached to the car. Similarly, there's the body and the soul -the self, the "I Am," and when I'm no longer so attached to the body (and in my case, the guitar), I experience my true self on a spiritual plane. I think that perhaps my spiritual life as well as my total detachment from the guitar due to memory loss may have put me more in touch with my higher consciousness and my true self, and that might have spurred my recovery. The straight line of life became the infinite, eternal circle of the true self. [The circle as a symbol of unity is present in the Hindu mandala and the uroboros, the snake biting its own tail. -Eds.]

I'm not the only one who believes in the true self of the present moment. Eckard Tolle (The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment; Namaste Publishing, 1997) has a similar perspective. Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet; Knopf, 1923) also put forth such a viewpoint.

AAJ: Similar ideas are also present in Buddhism and Hindu philosophy.

PM: Yes.

Music, Math, and the Spirit

AAJ: Your theory of guitar fingering positions is related to your idea of lines becoming circles.

PM: My approach embodies the opposites, the yin and yang of the guitar. I take the seven and five of the octave, the white and black keys on the piano, which is in one dimension, a straight line, and project it into two dimensions, vertical and horizontal. On the piano, it's addition: 7 + 5 = 12. On the guitar, it's multiplication: 3 x 4 = 12. These are only algebraic symbols, but they contain the truth that constantly hits me. So when the twelve notes of the chromatic scale are projected into two dimensions, as a circle, the fingering on the guitar becomes simpler and more flexible.

The guitar and life itself have both taught me that straight lines, from start to end, are not the correct way to understand things. We think of our lives as going on a straight line, from birth to death. But that is not the whole story. The essence of it all is love, and love occurs in the moment. It's a rush that cannot be described. We all have a tendency to think of love in terms of the people and the circumstances that seem to be generating it. But, in reality, love is separate from all of us. It's alive in itself; it's a true source. In Catholicism they refer to such love as the holy spirit.

So what it comes down to is that we have to detach, disentangle from all the details, and focus on love itself in the now. Since I lost all my memory after the surgery, I had no attachments to the guitar or anything else for that matter anymore. As the guitar or a pen or a cup of coffee came back into my life, I was no longer attached to them. Each object became something for my precise use for specific needs. I found myself detached from and outside of all these things that I had previously depended upon as part of who I was.

AAJ: That's certainly manifest in your guitar playing. The feeling is that it is a precision instrument which is active in the moment, never as if you're trying to think of what to do or where to go next.

PM: Right. I never practice anymore. I just play. After the operation, I have never practiced.

AAJ: It sounds like after the operation, you approached the guitar in a completely new way, on a higher plane of consciousness.

PM: It was really an extension of what I was seeking from youth on. In 1968, long before the operation, I was delving in Bayyina and in Eastern philosophy. I was always seeking that oneness. After the operation and memory loss, the oneness became free, it emerged. I think that what I sought was already within me. The aftermath of the operation released what was in me.

AAJ: You always perform with a high degree of concentration. Some jazz musicians seem more in a dream-like state when they play, letting their minds wander to different places and expressing these various thoughts, emotions, and images in their music. But you are totally focused, perhaps like a Zen master, totally centered in the now.

PM: Yes, but whether I like it or not, sometimes I get distracted. That's just being human. I bear with the distraction and accept it. I don't judge it, I don't condemn it. I flow with it. I see where it brings me.

Reminiscences about Fellow Guitarists

AAJ: In the film and in your autobiography, there are many musicians commenting on you and your playing with great affection, appreciation, and respect. Let's turn the tables on you. I'd like to hear what comes into your mind about other guitar players. I'll mention some guitarists, and you tell me your immediate thoughts about them. I'll start with two who influenced you greatly, personally and professionally when you started out: Wes Montgomery and Les Paul.

PM: They were two loveable individuals who were phosphorescent. Meeting them when I was young was quite an experience.

AAJ: Did you try to emulate either of them at all in your playing?

PM: Not at all.

AAJ: Another great guitarist whom you met early in your career was George Benson. What does he bring to mind?

PM: I have a great deal of respect and admiration for George. I felt similar admiration for Les, but with Wes it was not so much admiration as affection and love. Les was, among other things, an engineer and a mathematician who pioneered in electric guitar. George is more of an artist and a businessman. But when I think about Wes, all I think about is love. He was a very special person to me. You could see it in his face, and it was second nature for him to play. There was a magic to that.

AAJ: John Scofield.

PM: I don't know John that well, although he did have a lesson with me at one time, and our families have had dinner together: John and his wife and children, and me and my wife Aya. We were in Italy, at a great Italian restaurant. We sat at a long table and enjoyed each other's company. The only time John and I ever played together was around that same time in Italy. It was John's birthday, and I was doing a trio with Joey DeFrancesco and Byron Landham. John came up to me and asked if we could do a song together on his birthday. He asked if we could do "Sunny." You can see and hear it on YouTube. I loved doing that with him.

AAJ: Jimmy Bruno.

PM: I've enjoyed personal interactions with Jimmy, but never as players. I do treasure Jimmy's friendship. Jimmy seems very involved in his occupation as a musician, but I just enjoy him deeply as a friend.

AAJ: Aside from a memorable gig with Les Paul at the Iridium in 1998, and the one number with Scofield, have there been other performances with fellow guitarists?

PM: Sure. On my album All Sides Now (Blue Note, 1997), I worked with fellow guitarists Tuck Andress, Kevin Eubanks, Les Paul, Mike Stern and Michael Hedges. Among other things, I appeared with Lee Rittenour on his recording 6 String Theory (Concord/Universal, 2010). I performed duets with Bobby Rose in the 1960s and 1970s. We played together in quite a number of places. [Recordings of this duo from Martino's personal collection are available on the CD: Pat Martino: Alone Together with Bobby Rose (HighNote, 2012). -Eds.] And I did a tour of Italy with Russell Malone, Mark Whitfield, and Chuck Loeb where we played individually and collectively.

AAJ: I know that you had some contact with Jaco Pastorius. What comes to mind about him?

PM: Wow, Jaco! Jaco lived with me for two weeks in Philadelphia. He came in from Florida. He was signed with Epic Records at the time, and I was signed either to Prestige or Warner Brothers. I was living at 13th and Pine Streets at the time, and we tried playing together, but it didn't quite work out. We remained friends throughout the rest of his life, but there was some static from the record labels about us working together. So we never did.

AAJ: Were you aware of Jaco's musical genius?

PM: Absolutely. He's one of those players whose greatness you cannot refute. More recently in my experience with that special quality are the pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Eldar, both of whom I've performed with. They are so gifted as players that they're one of a kind. Jaco was one of those unique musicians who are irreplaceable. Once you come into their presence, you have to follow what they say, through admiration, through respect and enjoyment, through treasuring what they offer you.

AAJ: I think that you yourself are one of those musicians who inspire unique respect and enjoyment as well.

PM: Thank you. I think it doesn't matter whether it's a musical instrument, a spiritual idea, mathematics, whatever, it truly has an effect on one who pays it a visit. Unfortunately, I think too many musicians become so attached to their instrument and their career, that they lose sight of their real purpose, which is to give themselves up to the music and allow it to take place within them. I've always been more interested in the song I'm playing than in what career I could pursue with the guitar. I accept the beauty of that song now, and I immerse myself in the beauty of it with a lot of love. And that goes from moment to moment. And when it happens, it's over that quickly [snaps his fingers!]. It doesn't exist any more for me. I'm not entangled in it, and then the next moment is something new with as much commitment as the one before.

AAJ: It reminds me of Buddhist sand mandalas, where the monks make a meticulous figure using different colored sands, and after observing its beauty, they blow it away. So different from putting a painting in a museum, where it is preserved for a long time and sometimes acquires great monetary value and fame.

PM: Yes, those monks are saying the same thing as I am!

Jazz and the Cosmos

AAJ: I see that here on the table next to us, you have the book, The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander (Basic Books, 2016). Can you say a bit about your interest in it?

PM: A lot of this book relates to some ideas of John Coltrane about musical intervals and structures as they manifest in physics and the universe. And that's what some of my theory of guitar relates to as well.

AAJ: A moment ago, you used the word "entanglement," which is an important concept in quantum theory. At that subatomic level, there do seem to be parallels between jazz and physics, such as the "uncertainty principle." Jazz improvisations like quantum events are unpredictable until they happen. In fact, the link between music and the universe goes back as far as Pythagoras with his "music of the spheres." So there's always been an idea that music and physics are interwoven with one another.

PM: Of course! And modern composers like Eliot Carter, George Crumb, Milton Babbitt, and Karlheinz Stockhausen are also mathematicians. I met Eliot Carter once, and saw him making a drawing of a big spiral as he was composing his music. The same creative force manifests in different ways in music and in physics. I imagine that when humanity is ready for it, we'll discover alien forms of life that manifest the same force. We will open up to more forms of life than we do now. A simple example is that I now enjoy birds and even some insects in ways that I never did before. I've opened up to so many new things.

Martino's Next Project

AAJ: A lot of your fans will want to know what's next for Pat Martino. What are you planning to do now?

PM: I'm getting ready to do my new album for guitar and symphony orchestra.

AAJ: Wow! Finally! You've been talking about this for a long time!

PM: It's going to be an album of love ballads. Right now, I'm preparing sketches of some of the material. It's going to be very lush!

AAJ: Will it perhaps be like the iconic album, Charlie Parker with Strings (Verve, 1995) that Norman Granz recorded in and around 1950?

PM: In my own mind, I'm thinking a lot about Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.

[Interviewer's Note: Readers should not take the discussion of Martino's brain trauma in this interview as proven medical science. The roles of meditation and higher states of consciousness in recovery from brain injury are intriguing but uncertain and largely unexplored. If you or a loved one is diagnosed with a brain disorder, medical consultation is necessary. -VLS]


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