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All Sides Again

Pat Martino
Jimmy Katz

Guitar Maker: For Pat Martino, playing the guitar was a way to rediscover himself after a crippling series of attacks that decimated his memory.

With a star-studded tribute album and a world-beat CD produced in Los Gatos, jazz guitarist Pat Martino remakes a career almost snuffed out by brain seizures

By Eric Johnson

A FEW YEARS BACK, when the "swing kids" got into "lounge" and "jazz" (all wrapped in quotation marks to signify ironic distance), the scene had a lot to do with style and probably less to do with music. The tilt of Sinatra's fedora got the same attention as his hard-core hipster phrasing; the jazz cats' cool counted for as much as their radical re-imagining of the musical landscape.

Now that the spotlight is off the scene, a glow lingers around the music itself. The hippest of the neo-swingers have discovered that without the irony, without the quotation marks, jazz is even cooler. These days, contemporary alterna-popsters are exploring the work of the still-living artists who helped create that revolutionary sound, and they're digging it.

One of the players they are discovering is Pat Martino.

Martino has been lauded as one of contemporary jazz's greats for more than 30 years. In the '60s, playing in Harlem with the likes of Jack McDuff, he pushed the limits of soul-jazz, and in his spare time he helped invent hard-bop guitar. His sheer virtuosity on the instrument led critics to speak of Martino in the same breath as Wes Montgomery. In the '70s, Martino went on to develop his own style of jazz-rock fusion, putting him in the company of John Abercrombie, Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin.

Over the course of two decades, while jazz evolved volcanically and branched exponentially, Martino was a formidable creative force. He covered Django Reinhardt and John Coltrane and wrote gorgeous originals. He made a dozen albums as a band leader and appeared on 20 more in various capacities. His world-music debut, Baiyina, which predated the multi-culti boom by 20 years, is considered one of the first successful psychedelic albums (not just by critics and fans--it inspired a pilgrimage from the young Jerry Garcia).

His name did not become as familiar as some others, however, because in the late 1970s, Martino began experiencing crippling brain seizures, which eventually struck him down. Misdiagnosed, and then told his condition was certainly fatal, Martino underwent a series of operations. He survived but lost all memory.

After a long, and some say miraculous, recovery, Martino has been slowly returning to the world of jazz since 1994. This summer, Blue Note released All Sides Now, his first major-label studio recording in 20 years. And on Monday (Oct. 13), he will lead his quartet onto the stage at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz.

ANYONE WHO ever heard Pat Martino play the guitar wouldn't be surprised to hear how he talks. In his conversation, as in his music, Martino takes unique angles. He answers questions in unexpected ways, revealing a profound and complex understanding. Listening to his unusual descriptions of what might otherwise be mundane topics, it's possible to imagine that, forced to virtually reconstruct his consciousness from the ground up at the age of 40, he has created his own language.

In an interview from his Philadelphia home last week, Martino, who is now 53, spoke about his life, his ordeal and his music with a plain lack of self-pity and with an infectious optimism.

"An illness forces a series of decisions, both intellectual and practical," he says. "We're free to not be decisive about it for a while, to give it a chance to set in. We are given the freedom to decide--but not for too long, just until we see that there's nothing else that can be done except what has to be done."

Peter Block
Christopher Gardner

Man and Mythos: Flutist Peter Block joined forces with Martino for 'The Maker,' an album of Indian music and jazz on Block's Los Gatos record label, Mythos.

For his recovery, Martino set about relearning his life history, listening to his records and working on his Macintosh. But he credits the guitar for finally helping him make his way back into the world.

"I developed an intimate relationship with the instrument," he says. "It became a place to seek comfort, a place to contemplate. It went far beyond the music and became an instrumental part of my recovery.

"I strongly believe that for those of us who have the opportunity to develop a long relationship with a musical instrument as a tool, the instrument becomes secondary. It's like a 6-year-old and a bicycle. After it's mastered, it places no conscious demand on its user. The bicycle itself is no longer important. What matters then is the destination."

But even the music is little more than the finger pointing the way. "Making music itself has become an instrument," Martino explains. "It's important because it gives us the opportunity to participate in real-time social interaction. It creates a functional process that brings us closer to one another. But the decisive opportunity which music offers is that it creates a condition of perceptual awareness. It amplifies sensitivity itself."

This would sound like so much highfalutin' theory from a lesser musician. But Martino can walk the talk--now as well as ever.

On 1995's The Maker, an indie-label release that sold small but got huge critical raves, Martino reveals dazzling compositional skills to match his savvy with the guitar. Although the record demonstrates a sense of refinement and maturity, even a mellowness, it is clear throughout that this is a player who cut his teeth on jazz. Recorded in a single four-hour session, The Maker is mystical yet funky, every cut flavored with passion and intensity.

Martino had intended to push further, creatively, on a follow-up release, but the money guys at Blue Note had a better idea. They decided to bankroll a full-fledged studio production--an homage to Martino, featuring the man himself and some of his talented admirers.

On All Sides Now, Martino is joined by sultry chanteuse Cassandra Wilson, Tuck Andress (of Tuck and Patti), hippie pyrotechnician Michael Hedges and Jay Leno sideman Kevin Eubanks (who had tons of fret-cred before he began playing Doc to Jay's Johnny). The result is both more and less than a standard-issue tribute CD. All Sides Now has more musical integrity and less star excess (with the exception, perhaps, of the studio-gobbling performance by hard-rock wizard Joe Satriani).

For his part, from his duet with Satriani to a cover of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" with Wilson, Martino demonstrates astonishing range--of course. For Martino, that's just another display of technical virtuosity. As he has for most of his career--both before and after his illness--Martino goes far beyond the broad mastery of his instrument. He seems to discover the meaning of each piece and offer an interpretation that is instantly accessible and riveting.

MARTINO'S VAST range is also in evidence on Fire Dance, a record that fuses classical Indian music and jazz, released this summer by the small Los Gatos label Mythos. Peter Block, who produced the album along with his wife, Sita Chettayar, says he sought Martino out for the project after hearing The Maker and subsequently learning of Martino's earlier forays into Indian music on Baiyina. The album features the world-renowned tabla master Zakir Hussain, as well as Habib Khan on sitar and Ilya Rayzman on violin.

Block, who has studied both the Western and Indian classical traditions, says Martino's improvisational skills were all the guitarist needed to match the rhythmic and melodic complexity of the Indian-flavored jazz.

"He's one of the most powerful musicians there is," Block says, "and his intuition and appreciation of Indian music were pretty much all he needed. There's an intensity, an almost spiritual quality to his playing. His tone is rich, and he has impeccable taste in the notes he chooses."

Fire Dance has been selling well internationally--mostly through the Internet, Block says. (There is a link from Martino's own Web page--at patmartino.com.) Block says a European tour may be imminent--he's been approached by the organizers of the Montreaux Festival in Paris.

Martino, true to character, sees these career machinations in philosophical terms.

"The joy of music infiltrates these contractual relationships," he says. "The business end of things has everything to do with forcing us to be as optimistic as possible and, on behalf of that optimism, to be aesthetically honest as well as ethical."

The Pat Martino Quartet performs Monday (Oct. 13) at 7:30 and 9:30pm at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz; tickets are $15 adv./$17 dr. (408/427-2227)

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From the Oct. 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro.

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