One of the greatest perils an artist can face is the danger of repeating earlier works and getting stuck in a non-creative rut. There is not much chance of Pat Martino’s falling foul of that particular snare, although he would happily have foregone the circumstances that help him, as it were, avoid recycling his artistic avenue of thought of 30+ years ago.
The 72-year-old American guitarist is one of the stars of this year’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, which will take place at its regular berth of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, December 7 to 9, with additional gigs by leading foreign acts also lined up for the various branches of the Zappa Club enterprise up and down the country.
Martino, one of the mainstays of the jazz guitar community, has been at the top of his game for around half a century. Since 1967 he has led and participated in scores of recordings and performed all over the globe. Known for his polished technique, he has mixed it with such jazz greats as saxophonist Jimmy Heath, trailblazing organist Jack McDuff and saxophonist Sonny Stitt.
Martino had already fronted and contributed to close to 50 albums by 1980 when he underwent surgery as the result of a nearly fatal brain aneurysm. He survived the operation but he came out of the OR with little of his memory still intact.
That meant that he no longer remembered playing music, and his career appeared to be over.
However, as he had built up such a significant body of documented work prior to his health watershed, there were records to be listened to that could possibly trigger something in what remained of Martino’s memory banks.
“It was a very odd time,” says the guitarist with more than a touch of understatement. “I myself was not listening to the old myself [after the operation],” he declares. “But my father was listening to it, and I was recovering in my parent’s home.”
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If Martino’s dad had hoped to get the guitarist back into musical ways, it looked like the ploy was doomed to failure.
“I would hear it coming up through the floor, and it was just very annoying. I really didn’t want anything. I was completely alienated from it, since I had forgotten what I was supposed to do with it. I had no idea that it was me,” he recounts.
The recuperating guitarist’s father was not about to let his son give up on his musical talents.
“He showed me albums I had made and pictures of me playing, so I couldn’t say it wasn’t me, but I had no memory of it,” Martino says.
Athletes say that muscles have some kind of memory facility so that when they return to action following an injury, their limbs will gradually pick up from where they left off. Perhaps that is also the case with reawakening cerebral capabilities.
Martino feels that might be a possibility, although he didn’t really have much to work with.
“After the neural surgery I had in 1979, I was told that they had removed 70% of the left temporal lobe in my brain,” he explains.
That part of the brain is involved in highlevel auditory processing, as well as interpreting visual stimuli, processing speech semantics and controlling longterm memory. Martino clearly had a mountain to climb if he was going to rediscover any acceptable level of day-today functioning, let alone considering getting back to his previous high level of instrumental wizardry. Amazingly, he did, as will be apparent when he takes the stage at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque with his organ trio on December 8 (8 p.m.).
And Martino, who was born Pat Azzara, had quite a lot to get back to. He began playing guitar as a 12-year-old in Philadelphia and quickly realized that was what he wanted to do with his life. He was first introduced to the magic of jazz by his father, Carmen “Mickey” Azzara, who sang in local clubs and briefly studied guitar with Eddie Lang. He took Pat to all the jazz hot spots in Philly to hear and meet the likes of iconic jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.
Martino quit school in tenth grade.
Between lessons with his music teacher Dennis Sandole, he often ran into another gifted student, saxophonist John Coltrane, later to become a founding father of avantgarde jazz, who would treat the youngster to hot chocolate as they talked about music.
His dad’s jazzy sensibilities notwithstanding, Martino became involved in the early rock scene in Philadelphia and performed alongside stars like Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Darin. His first road gig was with jazz organist Charles Earland, a high school friend, and the guitarist maintains a string link with Hammond B-3 organ players to this day.
Word of the young guitarist spread, and he soon found himself sharing the bandstand with the likes of trombonist Slide Hampton and saxophonist Red Holloway.
The natural next step in Martino’s musical evolution was to immerse himself in the bustling New York jazz scene, and he hooked up with soul- and R&B-oriented jazz artists such as saxophonist Willis “Gatortail” Jackson. Martino also gravitated toward the organ trio format and enjoyed enriching sidemen berths with McDuff and Don Patterson.
Record companies also took note of the young guitarist’s progress. By the time he was 20, he was already signed up to Prestige Records and began putting out a string of quality recordings, including Strings!, Desperado, El Hombre and Baiyina (The Clear Evidence), the latter being one of jazz’s first successful ventures into psychedelia.
Martino would probably not go so far as to be thankful for his medical woes – he describes that time as “going through Dante’s Inferno – but says that the trying episode in his life informs his artistic ethos today.
“I think the asset of that change [following surgery] had to do with a stronger focus on the moment, less influenced by the past or any interest in the future. I am deeply focused on now,” he says.
No doubt, the members of Martino’s Tel Aviv Cinematheque audience will get that immediacy mindset and will happily go with the Martino flow.
Pat Martino and his trio will perform on December 8 at 8 p.m. at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. For more information and tickets: *9080 and https://www.zappa-club.co.il/
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