Pat Martino: To Renew A Life In Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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CAUTION! This interview may positively change the way you think about and experience music, yourself, and even your life. You risk growing and changing! Pat Martino is not simply a master guitarist and jazz icon. He is insistent on being a whole human being, insistent on being himself, insistent paradoxically on playing and enjoying life to the fullest. He is also a deep thinker who wants to get at the truth in some spiritual sense of what makes it all come together in the way that it does. In this interview, he explains some of his ideas about musical form and structure (see his website www.patmartino.com for a fuller exposition with diagrams), about himself and his lovely wife Ayako Asahi, his musical influences, his new CD Think Tank, and his 'take' on spirituality. He also forthrightly discusses the events surrounding the aneurysm he suffered in the 1980's, which left him with nearly total amnesia, and from which he made a remarkable recovery for which he eventually was honored with the NARAS "Heroes Award" in 2002. He further reveals another medical crisis that he endured in the late 1990's, for which his wife played a major role in a second miraculous recovery. This cat has nine lives!

I interviewed Pat at his home on a sunny autumn day. He lives in a modest but beautiful row home in the same Philadelphia ethnically diverse neighborhood in which he grew up. His studio is a pleasure to be in. He takes me to his work area, where his computers and guitars are all within arms' reach. I get goosebumps seeing up close the famous Gibson Pat Martino guitar from which he evokes such incredible rapid-fire sequences of notes. He points to his remarkably diverse record collection, which he is still cataloging. He's opened up the time from his tight schedule to talk with me for as long as necessary. For that time, I am completely welcomed into his life. It is my home and my place as much as his. As in the best jazz group, the barriers between us seem to dissolve. For me, the interview becomes what philosopher Martin Buber called an 'I-Thou' experience, two human beings meeting in a hallowed way, rather than an 'I-It' relationship of objective detachment.

I am honored and pleased to be able to offer this interview to you, the reader.

Interview Index

The Guitar
Musical Influences
Think Tank
The Aneurysm
Life Today

AAJ: For a 'warmup,' the infamous 'desert island' question: If you were going to a desert island, which couple of recordings would you bring with you to listen to?

PM: I wouldn't bring any recordings whatsoever, primarily because I find that recordings immobilize the creative process. Recordings are reminders of what was. I'm more interested in now.

AAJ: So, how would you spend your time there?

PM: I would spend my time adjusting to every opportunity that is available for me, in any way possible.

AAJ: So you would live in the now.

PM: I must.


AAJ: Let's start out with your instrument, the guitar. You are known by guitarists to use especially heavy gauges of strings. Some have been critical of that, as if it's an extreme, an eccentricity. What is your rationale for using especially heavy guage strings?

PM: It's one of a two-sided coin. Both sides now- it is the necessity of describing to you a procedure that is the norm and one that is considered the norm but is not. The norm is to adjust to ones incapabilities; the other is not to do so, but to flow with ones blessings, no longer seen as incapable, but as a gift in itself. I have a tendency with my right hand to abrasively and aggressively attack, for the sake of dynamics and for the sake of impact. A long time ago, in my youth with Dennis Sandoli, I used to break strings because of that aggression. He advised me to begin to practice the technique and to pick lighter than that, not to attack so hard, because I was breaking strings- in other words, he implied it was a mistake to be this way. I tried that for a brief period of time, but what it produced was disappointment. So it dawned on me that the easiest way to deal with this was to get a heavier gauged string, as opposed to readjusting my own nature. So that's what I did, and I continued to replace what was inefficient with what was sufficient, until finally, the gauges that were necessary for my own identity and personality took their place as tools to use without altering or injuring my own identity in any way.

AAJ: You didn't have to give up your own attack- the strings served as a resistance.

PM: Exactly- which is much more natural than being something you are not.

AAJ: That's a wonderful philosophy.

PM: It's just practicality. I think it leads back to the initial question of what I would bring to the island. I contain within myself all that is needed. There's nothing wrong with what I have, therefore everything can adapt to it. And accordingly, the study and experience of adaptation itself becomes the secret and power of social interaction.

AAJ: You give master classes. The late, great trombonist, J.J. Johnson used to reiterate two things when giving master classes- and he had an impish sense of humor, so you never knew when he was pulling your leg, but he'd say 'Practice long tones' and 'Minimize your body movements.' Now, that seems trivial, but I can see how that's related to his 'be-bop' approach: clean, fast, straightforward, with no vibrato. So he needed an excellent tone and had to concentrate his energy. So, I'm wondering what you want to teach experienced guitarists. What do you tell them?

PM: I try to activate their interpretation of what they're witnessing before them, in terms of categorization, with regard to their own intentions. If their intentions are on the basis of craftsmanship, I direct them to instructors of the craft. If their intention is towards accuracy with respect to a broader intake from their intentions, their priority, the creative force, then I go into master classes to amplify the options and alternatives that are available to them, from the simplest point of view. So, since they're looking for more complexity in terms of expansion, growth, and education, I bring before them the necessity of these two polarized sides of the same coin, namely their intention, and the two sides are its polarity.

AAJ: That's the point- to raise them to another level. How does that come about?

PM: By showing them that the secret is that the answers to their questions are in all things around them, indeed within the distractions themselves. The only thing that's distracted is their interpretation of what their priority is.

AAJ: Can you give an illustration of that?

PM: They come to me specifically for the guitar.

AAJ: Not jazz as well?

PM: I would say jazz as well, but jazz is an invisible coat. It's a veil of many substantial considerations. And that veil surrounds the instrument they've chosen to activate in itself. In the case of the guitar, there are many ways of seeing this. And I wouldn't rule out my opening the I Ching, the book of changes, the sixty-four hexagrams, from China. Nonetheless, if someone were to see this in a bookstore, and opened it, they would see sixty-four hexagrams, and they would see the secret to every string combination on the guitar. But the book was not there for that purpose. It was there for a much more complex source of philosophy from a different culture, a different part of the world, a different time. Now, they're under the impression as a student, that the only thing of value would be a study of Bach's 'Well-tempered Clavier.' But in the I Ching, the secret of every string combination on the guitar can be seen literally by opening one page. So here's an interface of intentions: the one who wants to learn about philosophy, and another who wants to learn about music. But there is a third factor here which is combinatorial of the two. That's what I have an interest in sharing: the ability to witness the opposites in conjunction with each other as one necessity.

AAJ: That seems very abstract.

PM: I can't help that. It's the same as the right hand and the left hand.

AAJ: Yes, I can see myself going to China and studying the I Ching, but what would be its impact on the music?

PM: Again, we're thinking about a very simple, basic thing for the guitar, the mechanism itself, the blueprint.

AAJ: Can you explain that a bit more concretely for us?

PM: OK, fine. The skeletal framework for the system of symbols that the I Ching is based upon sixty four symbols, and each has six straight lines. There are two types of lines, one is whole, the other is broken. Now, the guitar has six strings. The broken line stands for a string that isn't used. Therefore, if the fifth and sixth are broken, and the other four are not, wow, that's the fourth, third, second, and first strings of the guitar.

AAJ: That's fingering.

PM: That's string use. And any chord that can be played on those four strings, that's what that symbol represents. And any of the other sixty-three symbols, with also the inclusion of the 64th, which is 'all strings broken,' and that is just as important as any other combination because that's silence, that's the rest.

AAJ: How does this help the musician?

PM: This helps the guitarist by visually seeing the strings all at once. Without the teacher saying, well here's a chord on this set of strings. This week memorize that. Here's two chords next week for this set. Or how about this: this semester we're going to teach you at the university this string group, and we're going to deal with the sixth, the fifth, the fourth, and the third strings; the fifth, the fourth, the third, and the second; and the fourth, the third, the second, and the first. This is what the university is doing, but here, I walk in with the I Ching and say, open it. See this plate here, on this plate is every combination of guitar strings! What you're receiving this semester is symbolized here. These represent all that was ever done on this six string instrument, all that is being done at the moment, and all that ever will be done. Therefore, you're now seeing a revelation of a symbol that represents the inventiveness and the simplicity of the inventor's method, in other words, how certain things remain the same, how the square, if tipped to the side, has one of its four points facing upward, you now can see 12 o'clock, 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock, and 9 o'clock. Which is similar to north, east, south, and west. Which is similar to spring, summer, fall, and winter. Which is similar to many other things that are repetitive replications of inventiveness, in terms of systematic procedure.

AAJ: So, you're generating a whole new way of seeing the guitar.

PM: Actually, I'm generating a much more ancient way. It goes back to sacred geometry.

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