Guitarist Pat Martino has overcome far more than his share of obstacles. Emerging in the mid-1960s, he released a string of acclaimed albums starting with the classic El Hombre
(Prestige, 1967) and ending with the overlooked fusion classic Joyous Lake
(Warner Bros., 1977). Then a brain aneurysm literally stole his identity and for the next decade he struggled to regain who he was, both as a person and as a musician.
Since then Martino's dark-toned and rapid-fire but always swinging approach has not just returned, but surpassed itself on recent albums like the energetic fusion disc Stone Blue (Blue Note, 1998) and the outstanding organ trio Live at Yoshi's (Blue Note, 2001). Regardless of context, Martino's reverence for a jazz guitar history that he's now an integral part of has never swayed, making Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery an especially compelling album, given Montgomery's clear influence during Martino's formative years. Or at least it should be.
The playing is never less than stellar. Martino has surrounded himself with a sympathetic group of younger players: pianist David Kikoski, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Scott Allan Robinson and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. Martino's understanding of Montgomery's style runs deep, but this is no mere imitative homage. Martino pays the greatest tribute possible by managing to get right inside Montgomery's appealing stylecomfortably incorporating his trademark octaves, imaginative chord voicings and lithe linear phrasingwithout losing sight of the advanced chromatic approach that has defined Martino's style since nearly the beginning.
Martino culled the music from Montgomery's superior pre-A&M discography, avoiding the more commercial music that, sadly, became a less-than-fitting end to the icon's career when he died suddenly in 1968. From up-tempo burners like Montgomery's "Four on Six and aptly-titled "Twisted Blues to the more soulful "Road Song and mid-tempo "West Coast Blues, Martino filters his own distinctive voice through Montgomery's. There are also some thrilling moments from Kikoski, who's a mainstream player to be sure, but unafraid to push the limits. The ubiquitous Patitucci works hand-in-glove with Robinson, making the challengingly slow tempos of "Heartstrings and "If I Should Lose You swing in their own gentle way.
But what makes Remember a good album instead of a great one is the sound quality. Martino has always favored a dark tone, but the entire recording is muddy and distant. The guitarist sometimes gets lost in the mix; Patitucci's normally well-defined tone is thumpy, Robinson's kit muffled and Kikoski's piano far away. The recording sounds like a bad seat in a club with poor acoustics. The sound just sits there amorphously, neither drawing you in nor jumping out at you.
And that's a shame, because the playing is so clearly full of life. Musically speaking, Remember is highly recommendedit's one of Martino's strongest efforts since his 1987 comeback, in fact, a modern master paying respect to a past legend and acknowledging an unequivocal debt. But it's a challenge to get past the substandard sound in order to appreciate just how fine this record is.