Pat Martino: one of the best jazz guitarists
At the age of 35, when Pat Martino learned he might only have a few hours to live, he was already considered one of the best jazz guitarists. He had developed an elegant and fluid style modeled on guitarist Wes Montgomery, having started touring as a teenager, and became known for his toned lines, freewheeling harmonies and dexterity on the neck.
But as Martino recorded his first dozen albums, moving from hard bop to soul, blues and oriental music, he also began to experience mysterious headaches and seizures. When he suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm in 1980, doctors finally diagnosed what was wrong, locating a tangle of veins and arteries that had impaired blood flow to his brain.
He was told he needed immediate surgery, he flew from Los Angeles to his hometown of Philadelphia, where surgeons removed a blood clot along with part of his left temporal lobe. He woke up in a cloud – he felt like he had been “dropped cold, empty, neutral, cleansed,” as he later put it – with retrograde amnesia. He barely recognized his parents and had no memory of his name, let alone his musical career.
“I had no interest in music,” Martino remembers, “no muscular memory of playing guitar.”
But while listening to records and hearing friends play the instrument, he slowly started playing again, leading to an astonishing second act in which he recorded albums that rivaled his old records in elegance and creativity. He remained a dynamic force in jazz, even though he faced lingering health issues, continuing to occur until lung disease forced him to retire in 2018.
“Every time you thought he was away he would come back,” said his manager, Joseph Donofrio. âHe was fierce in his music and his integrity. It was only his music, his guitar, his heritage.
Martino was 77 when he died on Monday, in the same Philadelphia townhouse where he had spent part of his childhood.
From his early years as a conductor, Martino had sought to push his sound in adventurous new directions, moving from organ-tinged soul jazz to psychedelic fusion. His fourth album, Baiyina (The clear proof), included Indian instruments such as the tamboura and tabla, and was captioned “A Psychedelic Excursion Through the Magical Mysteries of the Qur’an”.
Martino then released an instrumental version of the pop song “Sunny”, which has become a staple of his live shows, and has shown a tender side on albums such as We will be together again (1976), a collection of duets with pianist Gil Goldstein which included a performance of “Send in the Clowns” by Stephen Sondheim.
He received four Grammy nominations, including for the 2003 album Thinking group, recorded with famous musicians such as pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash. âHe created his own language on the guitar,â banjo player Bela Fleck wrote in the cover notes. âHe walks among us but by different paths. “
Martino seemed to be so acclaimed in part because he was building on the bebop tradition while polishing the conventions. “He starts a line at an unexpected pace, pauses runs to emphasize a single note or riff, inserts odd-length jumps into standard licks, and shifts accents around the beat.” New York Times music critic Jon Pareles once wrote. âHis playing is clearly capricious, approaching the tunes from strange angles and taking rewarding tangents; it makes the shapes of the songs seem slippery and mysterious.
After Martino’s brain surgery, his willingness to experiment only seemed to increase. He studied world music, drawing inspiration from Chinese and Japanese scales, and tinkered with digital tools, using an electronic orchestra to create lush pieces backed by pianos, strings and timpani – irritating his longtime label. , Muse, when he refused to include a guitar.
Martino professed not to care. âSo many things have vaporized in my life,â he said. The New York Times in 1995, “I ask, ‘Why am I alive?’ I don’t need to be competitive. I have reached a point where I am looking for no other pedestal than the ground on which I am walking.
Patrick Carmen Azzara was born in Philadelphia on August 25, 1944. His mother was a housewife and his father was a tailor who sang in local clubs – using the stage name Martino, which prompted his son to do the same – and who briefly took guitar lessons from jazz legend Eddie Lang.
As Martino has recounted, his father lured him into music using a bit of reverse psychology, forbidding him to touch a guitar tucked away under the bed. He started playing at the age of 12 and, as he said, launched a career in music aimed at making his father proud.
After dropping out of school at age 15, he toured with R&B singer Lloyd Price and moved to Harlem, immersing himself in the neighborhood’s soul jazz scene. He performed with saxophonist Willis “Gator” Jackson, replaced George Benson in organist Jack McDuff’s band and recorded his first album, El Hombre (1967), at the age of 22.
In less than a decade, he suffered from severe epileptic seizures, notably during a performance in front of a crowd of over 200,000 people at the Riviera Jazz Festival in France. He took a break from touring and taught music in Hollywood while trying to find out what was wrong with his health. Doctors diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which prompted him to receive electroconvulsive treatment before being treated for an arteriovenous malformation in the brain.
His recovery was slow and he was marked by his old records, which his father played for him while Martino recovered in the family home. “I lay in my upstairs bed and heard them seep through the walls and floor, a reminder of something I had no idea what I was meant to be, or that I was never have been, “he recalls in an autobiography, Here and now! (2011), co-authored with Bill Milkowski.
Martino said his muscle memory came back in bits and pieces as he recovered many of his old techniques. He started playing again after two years and released a comeback album, The return (1987), only to take a break when his parents fell ill and died within a year of each other. He fell into depression and faced additional health issues, including emphysema, before returning to the studio to record two albums in six months. Exchange (1994) and The manufacturer (1995).
His other records included All sides now (1997), in which he teamed up with revered guitarists such as Les Paul and Joe Satriani; Undeniable (2011), recorded live at Blues Alley in Washington; and Formidable (2017), his latest band-leading record, which featured two members of his longtime trio, organist Pat Bianchi and drummer Carmen Intorre Jr.
Survivors include his 26-year-old wife, previously Ayako Asahi.
Martino was the subject of a documentary in 2008, Martino without rope, who reviewed her recovery from brain surgery. One scene showed him looking at images of his brain, where a black spot marked the missing 70% of his left temporal lobe, according to an account in Nautilus magazine. He had lost almost all of his memories, he noted, as well as a critical look at life.
âI would say what is missing is the disappointment, the criticism, the judgment of others – what is missing are all the dilemmas that made life so difficult,â he said in the film. âThis is what is missing. And to be honest with you, it’s beneficial.
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