Pat Martino Meets His Maker; the Resurrection of a Jazz Legend

Article excerpt

Oboes are moaning in Pat Martino's apartment. With startling force, a symphony has shattered the stillness of a hot Philadelphia afternoon. On the desk, beside a black-and-white photograph of an ocean horizon, a computer flickers with the music in sympathetic, multi-hued patterns. And swiveling in the command chair, his fingers drumming a copy of the I Ching, Pat Martino sits with eyes positively afire as his electronic string sections unfold into stark themes of confrontation and resolution. He gestures toward the note-speckled screen as if it were somehow ordained. "Pungent," he calls it, "pungent output."

Martino knows this electronic crusade represents a complete subversion of his image as a jazz guitar legend. But the connection between the two worlds is even more obvious than Pat's interest in both: Most business folk simply couldn't grasp that these magnificently intricate home recordings were created with a single device, a synth-equipped guitar. Pat is delighted by the dilemma. It suggests a range of conflicts and possibilities, and, like everything in his life, is to be savored slowly--as slowly as it takes for a lone guitarist to orchestrate digital timpani into a thunder that may never get heard beyond his living room walls.

Unfortunately for Pat, the world is calling him out of his comfortable seclusion. When Les Paul recently heard that Pat was finally releasing two new jazz albums, Interchange and The Maker, he recalled staggering out of Pat's first New York gigs in 1959. "Wes Montgomery and I were awed at what he was doing," Les remembers. "And George Benson idolized him; our eyes were popping out of our heads."

From that moment, which occurred when Pat was barely into his teens, his life became one long tour. He explored Eastern, classical, and rock, never settling in one area but internalizing the more potent attributes of each and assimilating the forms into some of jazz guitar's most dazzling recordings. His passion for synthesis has lately reverted toward improvised music, the best showcase for his liquid phrases and brooding tone.

Like that sound, Pat's speaking voice is resonant and dark, incongruous with his tiny frame. Yet he needs to use strings thicker than chicken wire--his high E is a .016--to keep from snapping them instantly. "This hand is brutal," he says, holding up fingers so delicate they're almost transparent.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Pat Martino is that he balances such apocalyptic intensity with the placid resolve of a Brahmin. The Maker and Interchange are subtler than past work, but they swing with a measured abandon that comes with great command and the contentment of one who may have moved too quickly through youth. He speaks often of the "rainbow of reality," of the euphoric satisfactions of each moment. This afternoon, he explodes into recollections of chance meetings over hot chocolate with John Coltrane, of early jams with Bobby Rydell and with Charles Earland, a Philly organist who, on a similarly hot day in 1958, drove by the Martino house on Garrett Street and whisked Pat off to his first out-of-town gig. Earland and his band were traveling in a long, black hearse.

It was a bleakly prescient scene. In 1980 Pat suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage which left him without recollection of his life or music. Orchestral composition was undertaken as therapy. Gradually, he reclaimed his past through the cognitive exercise of learning to operate computers. In the heat of conversation, Pat is still hit with jarring retrospective flashes, but he marvels at them with the same rapture that overtakes him when he draws parallels between art and whatever inspires it. He makes every thought dance through a maze of lively associations. Asked "What does a bop education afford young musicians?," his mouth curls under a wistful stare. "What do you think," he finally responds, "of garlic?," drawing an elaborate metaphor linking stylistic subjectivity and foods. …