Pat Martino Trio at Mount Vernon Country Club

Douglas Groothuis By

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Pat Martino Trio
Mount Vernon Country Club
Golden, Colorado
February 18, 2016

Musical greatness and human fragility mixed uneasily on February 18, 2016, when Pat Martino and his trio worked their magic at the Mount Vernon Country Club high in Golden, Colorado. The performance was grand, but the conditions were unwelcoming. A strange drama unfolded.

Martino, a jazz guitar virtuoso, has been a driving force in jazz since the middle of the 1960s when he established himself as a leading hard bop player even while only a teenager. After suffering a nearly-fatal brain aneurism in 1980, his ability to play guitar vanished, as did much of his previous life. But nurtured by his parents and gifted therapists, Martino relearned his craft, partially by listening to and copying his own guitar playing from his records. His comeback is documented in the 1987 recording, The Return, which is also available on DVD as Live at Ethel's Place. Martino had performed under his birth name, Pat Assura, several times to warm up. But this time it was Pat Martino. I hear from knowledgeable friends that the venue was filled to overflowing, mostly with musicians, since he is a guitarist's guitarist. It was a return to undiminished greatness. The band had not rehearsed, but grooved together stunningly. Pat was back as if he had never left.

That was almost thirty years ago, and Martino has not slowed down. He has instead increased his momentum by recording and performing prodigiously, often in organ trios. For the last four or five years, Martino has performed with two much younger bandmates, Pat Bianchi on B3 organ and Carmen Intorre on drums. Chicago's Jazz Showcase featured them in the summer of 2012. I flew there from Denver and joyfully beheld their four shows over two nights. Never had we been so elated through music. I asked Pat when he last did a concert in Denver. He could not remember. But it was at Mount Vernon Country Club, as he mentioned during this show. His present organist, Pat Bianchi, was in that audience in 2005.

I eagerly anticipated another rendezvous with greatness. I attended with three friends, two of whom knew little about jazz. Older men with beards were common in the audience of about one hundred and fifty people. I guess the average age was about fifty, thus highlighting the need to bring the gift of jazz to the ill-served youth of America. Many there came early for a fine dinner buffet before the performance. The venue was a warm, wooden room that overlooked Denver. In fact, it overlooked mile-high Denver by quite a bit. I felt the altitude after walking up the steps. Pat Martino felt the altitude as well. When Pat and his band walked on the slightly-elevated stage, he looked fragile—and a bit out of character wearing a baseball cap. He looked at the audience, hesitated a bit, and said slowly, "I don't know what to say, but I am dealing with the altitude." His younger charges were not, apparently. Bianchi looked at him with a hint of concern. Pat took some deep breaths—and I was terrified. Someone yelled, "Take your time, Pat." A few elongated seconds passed before Pat counted out the first tune, after which the band quickly ascended into the stratosphere.

When I saw Pat in Chicago, he played with little expression, focusing on his nimble hands and fret board. Yet his face recorded the throb that his music offered him and he sometimes smiled at us. But for this set, Pat looked a touch pensive, often catching his breath while playing and between tunes. After he finished soloing on the first tune, he laid out for Bianchi's organ solo. This worried me, since I did not remember him doing this in Chicago. Even without Pat's (unparalleled) comping, Bianchi and Carmen kept swinging madly. The joyful musical drama was overlaid by an unwanted drama of oxygen deprivation. I found myself praying the whole concert.

The journeyman rejoined the tune to finish the first number. Pat played the rest of the one-hour concert with the flawless fire and fluid grace that only Pat Martino can muster. The trios repertoire featured Martino trademarks and jazz standards, all backed brilliantly by Bianchi and Intorre. Pat surprised me when he played a hard swinging rendition of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" just after he played a slow and soulful rendition. Someone in the audience laughed at this, expressing what I was feeling. Who would have expected that? Jazz is always "the sound of surprise," as Whitney Baillet put it. My two young jazz novice friends were more than impressed with Pat Martino. They were awestruck with delight, which was fitting. They were witnessing the enchantment of jazz at its zenith.

Pat spoke little, as is his custom, but lauded Bianchi for the deep rapport between them, which seemed nearly telepathic. He also summed up his philosophy of "being in the moment": "Live in the present, since it is all that exists. The past and the future do not exist." He also commented on the physical challenge of playing in thin air: "If there is one thing I've learned from tonight, it is humility."

As the trio walked off the stage, the audience stood and applauded. But there would be no encore. Even if only the present exists, time still registers its wear on us all. Pat would not likely return to this venue. As I was walking to my car, I saw an older, heavy-set hipster trudging along in the parking lot, carrying his oxygen machine. Pat Martino, a jazz luminary, was worth every breath of his effort. He gave every breath to keep the music swinging "in the moment," even when the moment threatened to stand still. All man's greatness is balanced on a thin rope of fragility. Pat is right: The proper response is humility.

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