Pat Martino: 'Think Tank:' How Ideas Become Jazz and Vice-Versa

Victor L. Schermer By

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'Think Tank' is not merely 'another album' by a jazz icon, but a statement of some essence of what jazz can be today, here and now.
It could be said that Pat Martino most fully represents the evolution of jazz guitar artistry from the 1960’s to the present day. His playing displays a striking continuity over time, even though disrupted in mid-stream by his well-known bout with a brain aneurysm that led to nearly total amnesia, and from which he more than regained his full abilities and gifts by a heroic recovery process. Yet within that continuity are all the developments in “straight ahead” jazz from bebop to hard bop to electronic instruments and synthesizers to his own variations of modal and moments even approaching (but never quite going over the edge to) “free jazz” compositions, seeking more to express an idea or feeling than to stick to a pre-given harmonic structure. Martino is a “musician’s musician,” always seeking to grow and develop in the present moment, always striving to articulate something meaningful, never satisfied with clichés.

So the release on October 7, 2003 of his new Blue Note album Think Tank is not merely “another album” by a jazz icon, but a statement of some essence of what jazz can be today, here and now, as it moves to what it will be in a few days, months, and years. For that purpose, Martino assembled a group of top musicians, each in his own way a master and an innovator. Joe Lovano, Gonzalo Rubalcalba, Christian McBride, and Lewis Nash are not your typical “sidemen.” They are artists in their own right, breaking their own ground in their own ways. It takes a strong “force” like Martino to bring them together into a working ensemble in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and something coherent and unique comes out of the mix. And Martino succeeds well in this aim. What you have in this album is not a set of “tunes,” but a series of improvised compositions stamped forever into a recording instead of a musical score. If this is not a landmark in the history of jazz, it is certainly a fully stated testimony to what jazz can be at an artistic level of performance.

Think Tank is also a tribute to Blue Note Records as such, the recording company established in the 1940’s and ‘50’s by Albert Lion and Francis Wolff, with the aim of distilling the best in the exciting evolution of the music that took place at that time. The album, like so many in Blue Note catalogue, is crisp, virtuosic, generative, and exemplary of the form. It honors the legacy of bebop and hard bop that is Blue Note’s trademark. And it points the way to a concept, a vision, of what is to come. Totally contemporary, Think Tank is yet strictly within the honored tradition of the Blue Note label.

There is also an implied tribute here to John Coltrane. Surprisingly, though, it’s not at all in the Coltrane style as such. Think Tank is tight, structured, and never strays from it’s center, while Coltrane, however disciplined, was prone to fly into the stratosphere, express emergent feelings, “preach and pray,” and experiment with sudden and surprising turns of phrase. The commonality with Coltrane, in addition to a tune, “Phineas Coltrane,” that honors his name (and that of the pianist, Phineas Newborn), and another, “Africa,” which Trane composed and performed on the album Afro Brass, is the striving to make music which is more than music, which expresses some universal energy and essence far transcending the notes.

This is not mere improvising on a theme, or an expression of a story and an emotion, it is, like the furniture of internationally renowned furniture maker George Nakashima , made of the “tree” that is life itself, a universe in itself, not so much an embodied spirit here as a distilled quintessence of what is. The album cover, designed by Martino, exemplifies this wholeness and structure in a depiction of a Buckminster Fuller tetrahedron, through which another image begins to emerge (see the album cover, above).

This striving for unity is built into Martino’s concept of music and of life itself. In particular, he has always been interested in structure and number, finding within them links between nature, man, and music. Thus, we learn from his website that the melody of "Phineas Trane" is a musical transposition of the letters “John Coltrane tenor”. While both classical (Bach) and jazz (Parker) composers have been known to encode words into notes, for Martino, this is not merely a game, but a manifestation of the principle that all of life is built on universal “archetypal” essences, most clearly represented in arithmetical and geometrical forms. This album exemplifies that process not only in the manner of composition, but in the way each track represents an unfolding coil that builds around itself, with each bar, phrase, and chorus reflecting those that come before and after.

Thus the way to properly listen to this CD is to first familiarize yourself with the liner notes. Then, eliminate all distractions. And listen, if you will, with full focus, meditatively, in the “absence of memory, desire, and understanding.” If you like, the pedal point notes of “Africa,” done superbly by McBride, can be your “mantra.” Or, just stay centered in the now. In other words, this is serious composition, not background music.

I also strongly recommend that you give yourself every opportunity to hear Martino in person when the opportunity arises. (His itinerary is given on his website .) There’s just a whole other dimension to Martino’s playing that doesn’t come through as well on disk as it does at a gig: it is the spontaneous presence and musical expression of his personality, which is an integral part of his music making.

Pat Martino (guitar)
Joe Lovano (tenor saxophone)
Gonzalo Rubalcaba (piano)
Christian McBride (bass)
Lewis Nash (drums)

The Phineas Trane
Think Tank
Dozen Down
Sun on My Hands
Before You Ask

Record Label
Blue Note 42722

Related Article
Live From Zanzibar Blue: Pat Martino Quintet


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