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I’m writing this just a few weeks before a celebration of the life and legacy of the late, great guitarist Pat Martino, who passed away on Nov. 1, 2021, at age 77. A bevy of great guitarists will be on hand for this four-day event in Somers Point, New Jersey, which I will be emceeing, including Russell Malone, Mark Whitfield, Dave Stryker, Sheryl Bailey, Fareed Haque, Paul Bollenback, David O’Rourke, Joel Harrison and Jimmy Bruno, all of whom were greatly influenced by Pat.
Any aspiring guitarist who ever felt Pat’s burn on “Impressions” from 1974’s Consciousness, savored his sublime versions of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “Dreamsville” from 1976’s We’ll Be Together Again, experienced the exhilarating thrills of his groundbreaking 1977 fusion-oriented Joyous Lake, or encountered the oblique strategies and Eastern mysticism of 1968’s Baiyina (The Clear Evidence) owes a debt to Pat Martino. His laser-sharp lines, impeccable picking and driving sense of swing were admired by generations of jazz guitarists and aficionados. But more than that, Pat brought an extraordinary vision to the guitar that combined the grease factor from his many encounters with soul-jazz icons like Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson, Jack McDuff, Don Patterson, Trudy Pitts and Richard “Groove” Holmes with the more esoteric aspects of sacred geometry and quantum physics.
It was Consciousness that first pulled me to Pat Martino. I was coming out of a phase of worshipping rock guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter and Frank Zappa and was gradually beginning to embrace jazz through seminal players such as Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel and Joe Pass when I spotted Consciousness in the bins at a record shop in downtown Milwaukee. With its striking black-and-white cover photo of this mystical-looking cat sitting in a lotus position on what appeared to be a lily pad, staring directly back at me with an intense Rasputin gaze, I was absolutely transfixed. I bought the record, took it home, dropped the needle on the opening track — Pat’s take on John Coltrane’s “Impressions” — and was instantly blown away.
A few years later, when Joyous Lake came out in the summer of 1977, I had already been indoctrinated into the fusion movement by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return to Forever. Even so, I wasn’t quite prepared for what Pat, Delmar Brown, Mark Leonard and Kenwood Dennard had cooked up on the luminous and kinetic Joyous Lake. And I didn’t quite know what to make of the I Ching hexagram hovering over Pat’s head on the album cover, but it suggested that he was wading in deeper waters.
That fall, when I had heard that Pat would be performing in Madison, about 90 miles away from my hometown of Milwaukee, I made the pilgrimage in my brand-new ’77 Honda Civic. But rather than leading that Joyous Lake band, Pat was playing duets with his longtime Philly guitar partner Bobby Rose, who had appeared on Baiyina nine years earlier. They opened with a burning rendition of Wes Montgomery’s “Four on Six,” with Martino's driving swing factor in full effect. After taking in a whole set of inventive lines and peerless chops, I approached Pat for a brief chat. He was not only amiable and forthcoming, he invited me back to his hotel room to continue our conversation, which I taped on a cassette recorder and still have in my archives. It was a freewheeling, esoteric rap that lasted into the wee hours and touched on aspects of guitar I had never considered before, interspersed with mind-blowing dictums like: “Music is food, the guitar is merely a fork.”
That Pat would later overcome the debilitating effects of a brain aneurysm and subsequent surgery in 1980 and ultimately return to his former glory as one of the greatest guitarist on the planet is nothing short of miraculous. In effect, Pat had two careers — his pre-aneurysm years with Prestige, Warner Bros. and Muse, and his post-aneurysm years with Blue Note and HighNote. That I was able to produce Pat’s debut on the Blue Note label, 1997’s All Sides Now — 20 years after I had first seen him play in person — was immensely gratifying. That I would also co-author 2011’s Here and Now! The Autobiography of Pat Matino was a rare honor. So is emceeing this memorial celebration in New Jersey, some 45 years after we met. - Bill Milkowski