Into the Head and Heart: An Interview with jazz guitarist Pat Martino

By Brian L. Knight

In the last two years, we have been hearing a lot about jazz guitarist Pat Martino. The ever impressive 32 Records, which has been very productive with its jazz re-releases, seems to possess a certain admiration for the work of Pat Martino. To date, 32 jazz has released the bop of Consciousness (1972), the roaming explorations of 1972’s Live (Both Consciousness and Live have been released onto one album called Head and Heart). There has also been a re-release of Martino’s 1974 tribute to guitarist Wes Montgomery - Footprints; his remarkably intellectual collaboration with pianist Gil Goldstein- We Will Be Together Again (1976); and the jazz-fusion of 1976’s Joyous Lake and Starbright (These two albums have been combined into 32 Jazz’s First Light). In addition, 32 Jazz has compiled a Martino greatest hits album titled Cream. There have also been re-releases by Erik Kloss, Don Patterson and Willis Jackson that featured Martino as a sideman. Kloss’ One, Two Free highlighted Martino’s foray into the avant-garde while Patterson’s Steady Comin’ At Ya and Jackson’s Willis with Pat marked Martino’s familiar territory of organ laden soul jazz. Besides this onslaught of the old, Martino has been very active with new releases with Blue Note Records (All Sides Now and Cold Stone Blue).

Pat Martino first burst on to the music scene playing on organist Jack McDuff’s Steppin’ Out. Throughout the 1960s, Martino played with many of the organists who dominated the jazz sound of the time- Don Patterson, Charles Earland, Jimmy Smith and Richard "Groove" Holmes. In 1967, the 22-year-old Martino recorded his first solo album El Hombre which reflected his passion for soul jazz. Within 5 years of his first release, Martino developed a tremendously unique style while recording for Muse Records. This ignited a string of solo albums for the next five years, which attained both critical acclaim and mass fan appreciation. Luckily for us, 32 Jazz has returned many of Martino’s albums to our ears.

The most amazing aspect of Martino is the fact that he is still playing guitar in the 1990s. In 1980, after feeling serious headaches for some time, experienced a brain aneurysm. The operation was a success but at the cost of losing components of his memory. In the years following his operation, Martino slowly redeveloped the skills that he had once mastered. Through the help of family and friends, Martino picked up the guitar once again and learned to play from his own recordings. Eighteen years later, Martino is going strong. He is active in the recording studio and constantly playing live. During his busy schedule, Martino retreats to lifetime home of Philadelphia where the Vermont Review caught up with him and immediately learned that Martino’s energy, memory and music is alive and well.


Vermont Review: Can you pinpoint a time or reason that drove you to pick up the guitar?

Pat Martino: I was a child who wanted to know more about his father. My father had a guitar, which he strummed on Saturdays when he was home from the tailor factory. He played some tunes, sang for us and played regular chords. I think that any child wants to get closer to their parents and more or less bypass having to go outside to do it. In this particular case, the easiest way was to have an interest in what he enjoyed the most.

VR: Since you received a lot of musical influences from the family, did formal education help you in your musical development?

PM: It guided me in many ways in a sense that I had no interest in school, which amplified my interest in music.

VR: It seems that the media treats the hotbeds of jazz as New Orleans, Chicago and New York City. Philadelphia, your hometown, has had a long tradition of producing great jazz. Any comments?

PM: You have John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, the Heath Brothers, and McCoy Tyner. I don’t know what to say about that other than the fact that Philadelphia is so close to New York City. There is a professional core of activity in the industry. Philadelphia is a suburb of New York City. It is merely 90 miles away.

VR: Do you think there is a Philadelphia sound?

PM: I don’t think so. Any kind of stylistic amplification comes from social interactions as well as musical interactions. For me, Philadelphia is a place for isolation. I am normally always on tour. Philadelphia is a place that I come back to. It is temple. It is place I don’t play. The only time I play here is maybe once a year. Sometimes there are periods when a couple years will pass and I don't play here at all. I am constantly involved in New York City as my home base for business and touring.

VR: Do you live far from where you grew up?

PM: Not far at all. In fact, I spent six months in this home before I ran away from home and moved to Harlem. This is the last home that my parents invested in. I have renovated the home to my own enjoyment. I feeling very comfortable here in terms of its own authenticity with regards to genetic respect and meaning. It comes from Mom and Dad loving this place so much.

VR: During your earlier years, you played with many of the organ players who typified the soul-jazz sound such as Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Richard "Groove" Holmes and Jimmy McGriff. How did you get involved with these jazz style?

PM: They were the available work for me at that particular time.

VR: Was soul-jazz the popular sound of the time?

PM: I personally wouldn’t say that was the popular sound at the time, because you did have Art Blakely and Horace Silver. Charles Mingus. You had Miles.

VR: Do you still play soul-jazz?

PM: I haven’t for quite some time. In my latest release, Cold Stone Blue, there are elements in it that have something to do with it. In body and essence, it is the same (type of music) as what they played years ago, but it is quite different at the same time. I think that is dealing with culture itself, which has a great deal to do with the youngsters today who are studying jazz at the major conservatories. I think the one thing that is missing is the culture of the music. What is lost is real time.

VR: How has being a musician changed?

PM: The authenticity of focus itself. I think what is happening now is just as valuable but I think the focus upon issues, the focus upon taking advantage of opportunities is essential at any given time. To want to recreate something that has no surrounding is a very difficult thing to do.

VR: You claim that one of your first influences was the guitarist Johnny Smith whose biggest hit was "Moonlight in Vermont". Do you play that tune at all?

PM: I did when I was ten years old. I copied all of Johnny Smith’s solos and I experienced a drastic confrontation because of that. My father used take me around to different nightclubs almost like a protege and when the time came for me to take a solo, I would take a Johnny Smith solo. The only problem with that is that the ensemble that I was sitting in with didn’t play it in the same key. That forced me to be a little more realistic and I had to get involved. First of all, I had to learn to transpose and a number of other things. I think it was an essential series of metamorphoses that took place because of it. But when you come down to the source and reason for Johnny Smith coming into my life, that was mainly my father.

VR: Throughout your 32 Jazz albums, there are many Wayne Shorter compositions such as Fall, Footprints and Nefertiti. You obviously hold Shorter’s compositions in high regard.

PM: I have always enjoyed Wayne as well as Miles. I really enjoyed Weather Report as well (Editor’s note: Wayne Shorter played and composed with Miles Davis during the 1960s and Shorter was an integral member of the jazz-fusion group Weather Report in the 1970s). More than anything, (I like) his ability to be innovative. It is not only Wayne Shorter; it is quite a number of other gifted innovators.

VR: I read that you are interested in the modern compositions of Karlheinz Stockhauzen. Along with Miles Davis and Sun Ra, it seems that Stockhauuzen has influenced many jazz musicians like yourself.

PM: I really was affected by a lot of his music. This was probably in the 1960s – 1967-8. I found it necessary to point my attention and surround myself with completely different surroundings, musically. Karlheinz is one of the greatest examples of something that was efficient. Other composers that had a similar impact were Takemitsu. There is Elliot Carter who happens to be one of my favorite composers. I can go right down the line with a number of composers who have affected me. As well as Chopin and Handel.

VR: How did you translate these composer’s work music into your own music?

PM: The enjoyment of life. The tendency of certain kinds of lighting in my environment at different times of the day have a great to do with my attitude. By the same token, the control of certain audio forms of surroundings affect me.

VR: Over the years, you have played soul-jazz, hard bop, Latin jazz, and free jazz. Does any particular playing style stick out as your favorite?

PM: I have always likes the best what I am doing at the present moment. It seems to be not only painful, but essentially important to be as innovative as possible. By doing that, the first thing that is necessary is to be enjoying what is distinctly surrounding you. That is not only for music, but it is also for people. There are emotional attitudes that take place that surround my apartment. There are times when an ambulance goes past or when young group of kids go by. These things affect me. Because of that, I respond musically.

VR: That is quite a philosophy that you maintain

PM: I never relate to it as philosophical. I always relate to it just as logic. I enjoy the things that are around me and that allows me to be continuos.

VR: In recent months, 32 Jazz has re-released a whole slew of your own albums as well as albums that you have played on. Have you been experiencing a 2nd Wave of popularity?

PM: I have been experiencing a second wave of fulfillment. It has been quite some time. There are certain re-releases have been expected and hoped for. Not only by myself by many others who have constantly contacted me and asked, "whatever happened to Joyous Lake?" To finally have that re-released was a major, major event for me personally. It finally came around in full circle. As well as We Will Be Together Again. That left this country six months after its initial release. For that to come back into the country is so compatible with fulfillment. It is something that finally happened.

VR: We Will Be Together Again is a very different album from anything else you produced during that period. It seems to be very introspective and ethereal.

PM: There is a good reason for that. I did, simultaneously in the period of three weeks, three full albums. One was for Warner Brothers – Starbright. The other was Exit and the third was We Will Be Together Again. Those two albums were for Muse Records, which was bringing my contract to Muse to an end. It was not necessarily idiomatically to be touching upon two completely different markets. Exit was hard bop. That particular context demanded a difference between the two. That particular album came about by taking the fakebook into the studio and playing some really beautiful songs and choosing some standards from it. We also wrote a few off the top of our heads.

VR: When you were recording the album, did you realize that you were making such a landmark record?

PM: I did think so. Primarily because I had Ed Freeman, producer of the Warner Bros. album also produced We Will Be Together Again. He just so happens to fall asleep during the whole thing. I knew something was going to happen, because of that, in a very positive way.

VR: Is there any more of your recordings that you would like to see re-released?

PM: I really love Interchange (1994). That went off the market when Muse folded. I am hoping that Joel is going to re-release it. Also Nightwings (1996).

VR: Do you see 32 Jazz’s Joel Dorn as your champion?

PM: Joel and I go back to the late 1950s and early 1960s. We are very close friends. It is kind of hard to think about him in terms of music alone. With regards to what Joel means to me is that he has been authentically involved in jazz for that long. Over 40 years. As an elder, in his own right, it comes down to respect and the honor of survival for so many years. He was one of the major DJs in Philadelphia during the 1950s. It was because of Joel Dorn that I got turned on to the Montgomery brothers. The first time that I heard Wes Montgomery was Grooveyard by the brothers and it was Joel who played it. That started the avalanche.

VR: You album Footprints was a tribute to Wes Montgomery, yet there is only one of his tunes on the album. How is it a tribute?

PM: It was a tribute to Wes with regards to the influence he had upon me. The use of octaves. It was a reminder of his stylistic presence. The choice of songs. The feeling that came from it. We played a lot of things that reminded me quite a bit of Wes. Just thinking about Wes often had a great impact on the bonding.

VR: On your album Consciousness, you do a cover of Joni Mitchell’s "Both Sides Now". What made you cover that song?

PM: Primarily, my choice of "Both Sides Now" had everything to do with the nature of the song itself. Whoever had written it, I would have still chosen that song. What came from that particular composition and the style of it was a study for some of the students who were with me, of using the plectrum all on the down strokes to give the impression of a classical player who was using his/her right hand fingers. That particular song had a great deal to do with the study of the plectrum.

VR: You had quite a health scare in 1980 with your brain aneurysm. When I first started thinking about this interview, I though that maybe there would be difficulty remembering events from your past.

PM: There are certain lacks of retention. I think you would be surprised, I am sure you already have been, that quite number of these things have unfolded themselves and re-issued them subconsciously.

VR: Did you immediately pick up the guitar when you were recovering?

PM: Not through choice. When that took place, it was because of my father’s interest in that music and my fathers interest in guitar. The reason that I got involved back with the guitar was strictly boredom.

VR: Did your friends and family urge you to pick up the guitar once again?

PM: In a way yes, they were urging me, but not with words. With memories. They did not literally ask me or say to me: " You should play again." They never did that. They did they share in their own conversations, where I happened to be present, certain things that did take place in the past. That, in a sense, shook the bowl of Jell-O and one of the bubbles popped. They created a sense of negativity that eventually led to positivism. Because of the boredom, and not having anything to replace, I had no choice.

VR: How did the computer help in your recovery?

PM: They tried the best they could, to get me to be creatively active. Because of depression in terms of the trauma. The computer was what it came to when I started getting active. I started getting creative with it. The more creative I got with the computer, the closer I got to other software. Until finally I got a piece of software called Music Works. That started music. Still not guitar for a number of years.

VR: You have a Gibson guitar model named after you. What is that like?

PM: The onslaught of the industrial machine is so inpersonable. The guitar itself, I really love. The came the idea of going back to my roots. That came from Gibson because primarily, I started with a Gibson. Now I am back to my roots. The design of instrument was straightforward was completely successful in terms of all of its proportions. I am super, super happy about it. One of more reasons is that hopefully the cost is going to be in the range of younger players. I am not looking for a model to become very much like a Johnny Smith model, which became so expensive it became an epic guitar. It was placed on a shelf with glass around it.

VR: In the world of rock and roll, you have a fondness to the work of Pete Townsend and Jerry Garcia.

PM: It is shame because Jerry has a deep interest in my playing. Pete and I have been friends for a long time. We played two years ago in New York City.

VR: You were born on the same day that the Allies liberated Paris from the Germans. Do you feel any bond to that day?

PM: I don’t have a tendency to move towards major events of the nature that have a great deal to do with crises. I find it necessary to really do the best possible to control what I keep in view at all times.

It this exact philosophy that amazed me most about Mr. Martino. In discussing his views on music, his surrounding environment and his own lifestyle, Martino came across as an individual who embraces all aspects of life, yet his personal climate remains uncomplicated and unimpeded. Perhaps it has been a characteristic of his since birth or maybe he has gained a new outlook on life since 1980. Nonetheless, Pat Martino is an individual who embraces life and what it has to offer. He is strongly tied to his own heritage, yet he is eagerly anticipating the future. Like a pet reflecting its master’s characteristics, Martino’s music is reflection of his own personality. His music is full of external influences and yet it possesses a distinctively original flair. Martino’s music constantly pays homage to the sounds that have come before him yet it still progressively pushes forward. The tale of Pat Martino could easily be the tale of an individual who arrived at the brink and survived. In reality, its so much more than that. Pat Martino’s health problems in 1980 was simply another stage in the life of a truly remarkable life. From his young days as a guitar protégé til two days ago, Pat Martino’s life has been typified by innovation, progression and distinguished technique. With his positive worldview, we can only expect more from this great man.