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[whitespace] Pat Martino Giant Steps: After brain surgery, one of the world's finest jazz guitarists had to remaster his instrument.

Return to Me

Pat Martino's road to recovery was paved with revelation

By Greg Cahill

FOR PAT MARTINO, a soul-jazz icon, it was like being "dropped cold, empty, neutral, cleansed . . . naked" into the world. In 1980, Martino--then one of the greatest jazz guitarists in the world--was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and decided to undergo surgery after being told the condition could prove fatal. When the anesthesia wore off, Martino looked up hazily at his parents and his doctors, and tried to piece together any memory of his life.

"It left me completely empty," says Martino, during a phone interview from Southern California. "The lengthy period for recovery contained a lot of very interesting conditions, and one of the most interesting of all was depression and a lack of decision to do something about that. That became procrastination and boredom, which became more and more amplified until it became crucial to do anything that could be done. When your back is against the wall and you're bored to death, you're even bored with procrastinating. When that takes place, you make a fundamental decision to do something and try to get active, just to cover the pain of it. You get busy."

In the process, his life became more filled with interests, including the guitar. "When it did re-emerge," he adds, "it did so on its own terms but with no consideration of career orientation. So it was pure in the sense of not being abrasively interrupted with responsibilities to competitively fulfill other people's expectations."

For Martino, who is given to long philosophical discussions about life, his resurrection is the starting point of a spiritual journey from which he continues to learn. "It's initial for you to understand the simplicity of this and the irony as well," he says of his ability to remaster the guitar. "We begin to experience life on a continuous level, and it becomes implanted in us subliminally. It remains as a part of us from that time forward."

Born Pat Azzara in Philadelphia, he was first exposed to jazz through his father, Carmen "Mickey" Azzara, who sang in local clubs and briefly studied guitar with Eddie Lang. He took Pat to all New York's hot spots to hear and meet guitarist Wes Montgomery and other musical giants.

Martino began playing guitar when he was 12 years old and left school in the 10th grade to devote himself to music. During visits to his music teacher, Martino often ran into another gifted student, sax legend John Coltrane.

Besides firsthand encounters with 'Trane and Montgomery, he also cites Johnny Smith, a Stan Getz associate, as an early inspiration. "He seemed to me, as a child, to understand everything about music," Martino recalls.

After his surgery and recovery, Martino resumed his career when he appeared in 1987 in New York, in a gig that was released on a CD with an appropriate name, The Return. He then took another hiatus when both of his parents became ill, and he didn't record again until 1994, when he recorded Interchange and then The Maker.

Today, Martino, 56, is once again rated as one of the finest jazz guitarists, and he is perfectly content with his laid-back approach to his recording career. His recent CD, Pat Martino Live at Yoshi's (Blue Note), with organist Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Billy Hart, marks a return to the same organ-trio style with which the Philadelphia native first made his name 40 years ago.

"Before the surgery, my interests were latent with competitive success. At this particular point, the music is there and it takes care of itself."

"The opportunities that come through these things are a rainbow of color," he adds. "It's an ongoing metamorphosis that continuously surprises me--almost a form of existentialism."

Pat Martino Trio plays two shows, 7 and 9pm, Wednesday (Nov. 14) at Kuumbwa Jazz Center. Tickets are $18-$20. 427.2227.

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From the November 14-21, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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