Brad Mehldau is primarily known for his understated acoustic chamber-jazz efforts. Yet one would be…
A select group of guitarists gathered to honor Pat Martino, a treasured influence and mentor whose lessons resonated beyond the amplifier’s echo.
On a winter day in early 2021, one guitarist after another entered the Figure 8 Recording studio in Brooklyn, there to perform a couple of tracks each, with a versatile rhythm section chosen by their fellow guitarist Joel Harrison. In other years, this assemblage would have taken place on stage, with an audience present, as part of his annual Alternative Guitar Summit. But as the country headed into its second year of pandemic lockdowns, Harrison had made the decision to present the event as a livestream, as part of his annual Alternative Guitar Summit. He had canceled the event the year before, just as the world woke up to the dangers of the novel coronavirus. But now that wasn’t an option. He knew he was running out of time.
Harrison founded the AGS in 2010 as a three-day series of workshops and concerts, and several years ago he began to stage tribute concerts at this three-day event, lining up scads of guitarists to perform the compositions of icons such as Jim Hall, Pat Metheny, Ralph Towner, and even a few non-guitarists, such as Paul Motian — whose own bands from the ’80s on almost always featured guitar — as well as Carla Bley and Joni Mitchell.
In 2021, the musicians at Figure 8 had gathered to honor Pat Martino, who twice became one of the most influential guitarists to two generations.
Yes, twice. He came on the scene as a prodigy in the early ’60s, a contemporary of George Benson, galvanizing listeners with his astonishing technique, first with organ combos in his native Philadelphia and then widening his scope to include post-bop modernism and fusion. And then, after the 1980 brain hemorrhage that nearly killed him and cost him his memory, he relearned the guitar from scratch by listening to his own records, re-emerging with a passion and command — now informed by a peek into the abyss — that rivaled (and maybe surpassed) his earlier work.
Harrison has two touchstones for his ASG tributes: to focus on the compositions as well as the artistry of the celebrants, and to do so while they are alive and could, if able, attend the performance. With Martino, only the first of these conditions applied; too ill to join the party in person, he died a half-year later at age 77. But as he watched the string of live-streamed performances at home, the musicians who had come to offer homage — an eclectic array of more than a dozen, among them Rez Abbasi, Peter Bernstein, Paul Bollenback, Ed Cherry, Russell Malone and Kurt Rosenwinkel — had the strong sense that Martino was in the room with them.
“One of the beautiful things about this,” says veteran guitarist Dave Stryker, “is that we were able to celebrate Pat and his compositions while he was still here.” (Nine of the performances make up the CD compilation Alternative Guitar Summit Honoring Pat Martino, Volume 1, released on HighNote Records in March.) “I’m just glad that he was able to feel our appreciation and our love for him, and the fact that we just did all his original tunes.”
“I wept, actually, when I watched the whole livestream, partly because that time in the pandemic was so emotionally charged, and for us to all come together to honor Pat … ,” recalls Sheryl Bailey, a roundly hailed bandleader and the assistant chair of the guitar department at Berklee. “I felt that he was really there, and that the guitarists were really playing for him — because every guitar player has been influenced by him, as a guitarist, and as a composer, and as a thinker.”
Harrison, when asked about the manifestations of that influence, points first to Martino’s fluidity at any speed. “His rhythmic drive, especially with his right hand, is something that nobody had ever seen before. So there’s a certain exhilaration to his playing, where he would just develop this tremendous energy in his solos. There are stories of how he would create these right-hand exercises, even as a young man, using these really heavy-gauge strings, and so there is this feeling of rapid-fire, beautifully executed fast eighth- or 16th-notes that is his trademark. His precision was incredible; you just didn’t hear this guy make mistakes or flub notes, right? And his feeling for bebop phrasing was incredible, too. He was unique.”
Bailey speaks to those attributes, too — the speed and the articulation — and adds her admiration for the harmonic concepts that colored his sound. “He used a lot of altered sustained chords, or this sound of the subdominant minor over dominant sevens; it’s a dark sound, and it’s unique to Pat.” Technical details aside, the important point is that is that this sound “comes out of Coltrane,” Bailey offers, and she has a pretty good theory why. “It comes from the Sandole brothers,” she says, referencing Dennis and Adolph Sandole, the legendary Philadelphia theorists and educators who taught not only Coltrane and Martino but also jazz musicians from Art Farmer to Matthew Shipp. (The teenaged Martino and Coltrane, his senior by 18 years, reportedly would discuss the Sandoles’ teachings over hot chocolate.)
Fareed Haque, whose virtuosity extends from classical music to fusion hybrids that draw on his Pakistani-Chilean heritage, offers yet another key to Martino’s essential role in shaping modern jazz guitar. “I think that Pat is a bridge between bebop and R&B and the blues, and in a way that other jazz players are not. He is the one jazz player — not just guitar player — who really embodies that connection, who was embedded in the chitlin circuit [playing in bands led by saxophonist Willis Jackson and organists Jack McDuff and Don Patterson] and then became a famous bebop player. And I think his jazz guitar playing is so unique because of that connection to the chitlin circuit, not in spite of it. No matter how sophisticated he got, the blues — not only in his note choices, but in his feel — was embedded in everything he did.”
Harrison echoes this analysis: “Pat straddled two eras, which made him fascinating. He was one of the last guitarists, to my knowledge, who grew up in a time when jazz was truly a popular music. You could play every night, and it was a thriving part of the African-American community which embraced it. And he brought that background, which was as much cultural as it was technical, into the modern world of harmony, and created something entirely different” — different enough to shake the world for any dedicated guitar player encountering his music for the first time.
The adolescent Stryker had only seen Martino’s name when he picked up Live!, the 1972 recording that featured Martino’s famous 10-minute romp on “Sunny,” a pop hit from the previous decade. “He had a fire in his playing, and it just spoke to me. I’m coming from rock and blues and I hear this guy, and his playing was so exciting, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ You know, listening to his records and when his solo would end, going over to the record player and moving the tone arm back to hear it again.”
Harrison, who as a high-schooler bought Martino’s breakthrough album Consciousness in the mid-’70s, observes how fresh it sounded — even though his own playing doesn’t reflect much of Martino’s influence. As he explains, “I knew right away that I could never be that kind of player, that this was one of these people, like John McLaughlin, that it would be silly for me to try to emulate.” Stryker, on the other hand, recognized the danger of falling too much under Martino’s spell: “His concept really rubbed off on me. But after a certain point, I had to stop listening to him for a while, because you don’t want to become a bad clone of somebody. You want to take inspiration from them and find your own voice.” And Haque pinpoints the source of his own work when he says, “My jazz guitar playing was modeled on that world that lives between John McLaughlin and Pat Martino.”
In addition to the galvanic impact of his style, the AGS tribute gave the participants a chance to renew their adulation for Martino’s songs. Harrison helped guide the repertoire, suggesting tunes that he thought would need to appear on the set list; he specifically omitted songs that constitute some of Martino’s best-known performances but that he did not write, the better to highlight the range of his songwriting. (As with many artists whose genius runs on the parallel tracks of performance and composition, the emphasis on one can obscure the richness of the other.)
Not that the congregation required too much preaching. Working with Ed Cherry, Bailey performed “Willow” (from Consciousness), a song that she used to include in gig sets: “I just loved the opportunity to play that again. I’ve always been fascinated by that composition — the moodiness of it, and the darkness of it; to me, it’s really Pat.” Stryker turned to what first attracted him to Martino’s playing by teaming up with Paul Bollenback to play “On the Stairs” (also from Consciousness), “one of those burning Pat Martino minor blues tunes that had to be there.” Haque jumped at the chance to contribute “Line Games,” the storm-wind opening track from Joyous Lake, Martino’s 1976 leap into the fusion era — which Haque’s mother had purchased, on the advice of a record clerk, for her 11-year-old son. It took him about a year before he began to understand it: “Harmonically, rhythmically, there’s just so much information coming at you.” A half-century later, Haque is putting the finishing touches, with Martino’s blessing, on a remake of that touchstone album.
Harrison chose to play a solo version of the folkish “Country Road,” from Martino’s Nexus, recorded on stage in the mid-’90s. “I don’t think people fully understand what a broad and deep compositional vision he had,” he says. “He wrote a lot of different kinds of music for the guitar and didn’t come close to staying in any sort of box.” Both Harrison and Haque identify an Eastern strain in Martino’s output, with Haque recalling discussions he and Martino had in relation to his Joyous Lake project: “A lot of the rhythms he does are related to Indian music. In our chats, he was very interested in Indian music, even though he never actually studied it. And he wrote a lot of larger orchestral works that he never released.”
Bailey spent a little time with Martino, too, and saw some of the classical pieces he worked on; like the others, she hopes to see a lot more attention paid to Martino’s writing. “There’s got to be a songbook, because he covers everything from those early organ grinders and blues to the deep through-composed fusion pieces,” she says. And more than most, she has tangible evidence of his methodology. Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1980s, she studied with guitarist Mark Koch, who himself had studied with Martino. “When I was 15,” she recalls, “Mark showed me these notebooks of Pat’s, which he had copied and which had these amazing drawings and geographic shapes and very cosmic-looking pyramids. Later on, they really helped me understand some of the verbiage that Pat used when he talks about music, because he could get very esoteric.”
“Pat didn’t go to Berklee like I did,” she continues. “He was a child prodigy, and he came to all the things in music theory that we know and teach here, but through his own system, which comes from a genius mind, a mathematical mind. He was a master of all these things, but he just didn’t have the names that we use. I have a couple of students now, young kids, and they’re getting those notebooks of Pat’s. So he’s still inspiring generations of guitar players to come.”
Beyond his playing and his writing, much of Martino’s influence comes down to the light-year reach of his intellect and philosophical insight. In person, he cast an almost supernal presence. Serenely centered, remarkably perceptive, he was an unprepossessing guru, his words couched in his resonant baritone, a big velvet blanket of a voice right out of central casting. It made him an invaluable teacher, though not necessarily of music per se.
Harrison remembers taking one lesson with Martino at his home in Philadelphia. “It was great being in his presence, but I’m not sure it was really about the guitar. Some energy got transmitted, and it was pretty strong. But Pat was a genius, and geniuses don’t always explain what they’re doing in a way that the rest of us can make much use of.”
Bailey also took a lesson, not long after meeting Martino at the 1995 Thelonious Monk Competition, where he served on the panel that awarded her third place: “We didn’t play together. He was composing some 12-tone music and some string quartets, and we just hung out and talked about that stuff.” Haque, during his tenure at Northern Illinois University, hosted Martino for a lecture and remembers that afterward, they talked about several things — just not the guitar.
In that sense, I also took a couple of lessons from Martino, even though I’ve never owned or played a guitar. Each time I saw him after a set, he asked one or two unerringly targeted questions — about my health, my work, the world — that fired my imagination; these brief conversations left me thinking with more clarity and warmed by his wisdom.
In Bailey’s words, “Pat’s philosophies about life and living and being a creative artist, I think, are so inspiring and go beyond musicians and music fans, into other disciplines of art. And beyond that, just as a philosophy for life — psychologically and spiritually. He had really deep things to say about just living life.” - Neil Tesser
Photos by RR Jones.