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Pat Martino

Legend, Treasure, Inspiration
Legend, Treasure, Inspiration

He is a living legend, a national treasure, and an inspiration to musicians and music lovers of all stripes.
Pat Martino’s exemplary career spans four decades, and his personal tale of trial and tribulation is one of the most powerful and miraculous success stories in music history. From his formative years as a sideman (or “sidekid”) in the rough-and-tumble chitlin circuit and smoky jazz bars to his inevitable ascendancy in the rarefied circles of the jazz world, Pat has remained true to his artistic ideals with staggering results. An artist more interested in exploring new musical terrain than rehashing old formulas, Martino is a true pioneer and a self-styled alchemist of the guitar. The most obvious and striking aspect of his magic is his seemingly effortless and unflagging ability to transform scales and licks into long, mesmerizing streams of consciousness.
Like the magic potions of the legendary alchemist, Martino’s unique conceptions are conjured up regularly from a bottomless well of ideas. He personifies the five T’s – tone, time, technique, touch, and taste. But don’t take my word for it, just give any of his discs a spin, or ask any knowledgeable member of today’s musical cognoscenti. Martino’s fans and admirers are legion and have included players far outside the genre, like Pete Townshend and the late Jerry Garcia.
Today, Martino is supreme among the jazz voices of his generation. Following years of accomplishment, he continues crossing and redefining boundaries in his art. He is a true musical globalist; comfortable with and routinely blending straight jazz, bebop and swing, jazz rock fusion, blues, ethnic sounds, avant-garde and mathematical music. However, his priorities are communication and the social impact of his playing, and constantly challenging himself.
We caught up with the master while he was on the heels of completing his newest album, Think Tank (Blue Note, 2003).

Vintage Guitar: What was your early musical background?
Pat Martino: I was introduced to music by my father. He had an interest in jazz music and was an amateur guitarist at a rudimentary level. He had a guitar around the house and would sing songs on Saturday, after work.
My father worked as a tailor in a clothes factory. Both he and my mother worked in what was referred to as “sweat shops” until they finally opened their own clothing store. Anyway, he used to sing songs using the guitar as an accompaniment, just strumming chords. These were in the culture; they were Italian songs he would sing to my mother.
Were you interested in guitar at an early age?
I was curious. I’ve been told that when I was about three years old I went into my father’s bedroom to look for his guitar. He kept his guitar under the bed. I started playing around with it and cut my fingers on it, on the strings. It was the first time I had bled. Apparently, I began painting the bedroom wall with my blood. That’s how my parents found out that I had been playing with the guitar. From that point my father kept me away from the instrument completely.
How did you begin playing guitar?
When I was about 11 my father helped a favorite cousin, Joey Azzara, get a guitar. He wanted to be a guitar player. I was envious and got on a campaign to have my father buy me a guitar. He bought me a $10 guitar from a pawn shop when I was 12. It was really a little wooden item that resembled a guitar, a children’s toy. He said, “If you can play something on this, I might get you a guitar.” And I did.
Within six weeks, he took me to Wurlitzer’s music store on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. It no longer exists. My father bought me a Gibson Les Paul Standard, the gold painted model. This was in 1956.
This was a gold top Les Paul with white soap-bar pickups?
That’s right. Within six months we exchanged it for a Les Paul Custom, the black beauty “fretless wonder. ” When we were first in Wurlitzer’s I saw and wanted that one, but my father said, “You’re not good enough yet. “
He wanted you to strive and work for it…
That’s it exactly.
Was that Les Paul Custom the one you played in the first phase of your professional career?
Yes, I played it for many years.
Which guitarists influenced you in that time period?
My earliest influences were Johnny Smith and Les Paul. Les Paul came first, because of the name on the guitar, but not only that. Les Paul and Mary Ford were extremely successful in the media – radio and 45 RPM records. Les was followed by Johnny Smith, and the awareness of players like Mundell Lowe, Barry Galbraith, and Jim Hall.
Wes Montgomery was a true influence; the others really represented an awareness and respect for their facility as professionals. Hank Garland and Joe Pass were also influential. In retrospect I would have to say it comes down to five major influences: Les Paul, Johnny Smith, Hank Garland, Joe Pass, and Wes Montgomery.
I hear elements of those players in your style. Were you influenced at all by Kenny Burrell and Grant Green?
Not really. The only things I picked up from Burrell or Green were personal relationships in Harlem. As far as their legato, stylistic way of playing, no. I had more interest in a staccato style, where more notes are picked.
Were you influenced by other instrumentalists?
Yes, more than anybody, my greatest influences came from (trumpeter) Donald Byrd, (alto saxophonist) Gigi Gryce, (trumpeter) Miles Davis, and most of all from (tenor/soprano saxophonist) John Coltrane.
How did Coltrane influence you?
Coltrane influenced me to move into a higher level of respect and position in the musical community, more than the music itself. To this day, the technical side of the instrument is secondary to other reasons for playing, like social impact and the spiritual delivery of the performance.
With John I was drawn to how dynamic he was as a person. I was more interested in his social interaction and leadership than in his craft. With Coltrane and Miles Davis, I was influenced by their leadership and interaction with sidemen. This affected my experiences as a leader; in regard to the various sidemen I’ve played with on my different projects and the different musical environments that have been created in the studio and in concert.
The end result was that I learned more about music by studying the people than the craft. I wanted to be a successful jazz guitarist, but I wanted to be a strong artist like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Sarah Vaughn, or Frank Sinatra. I wanted to be an individual who stuck out.
How about alto saxophonists Charlie Parker or Sonny Stitt?
I never really got into Charlie Parker. I got into Sonny Stitt because I worked with him. The title track of my album, Strings, is dedicated to him. String was his nickname.
What were some of your earliest professional experiences? Were any of them particularly pivotal?
Working in [R&B singer] Lloyd Price’s band was pivotal. It was an 18-piece big band which included the Turrentine brothers – Stanley and Tommy – Slide Hampton, Julian Priester, Charlie Persip, Red Holloway… there were so many great players in that band. It was the hottest big jazz band in New York City at the time. We played 40 minutes with Lloyd, but before he came out and did his show we played for an hourand we performed. We played arrangements by Slide Hampton, Onzie Mathews, and Gerald Wilson…
Didn’t you once play in a band with Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell?
Yes. That was before Lloyd Price. It was all about rock and roll music on the East Coast. We called ourselves the Hurricanes. The band was primarily designed to target the summer shore market, like Bill Haley and the Comets. We were putting bands together to play down the shore, the resorts in Atlantic City and so on.
Could you tell us about the evolution of your style and sound?
First, I began to desire interest from others at a very early age. It goes back to serenading brides under their window sills in the Italian community of south Philly with my father and an accordion player. I played second guitar in this trio.
My need was to be just as important as the bride; here I was playing but everyone was more interested in the bride. The desire for interest and attention crosses into all other areas of social interaction on an artistic level.
So you sought to build a style that would attract attention?
That would enable me to stick out, to be noticed and to be of interest on behalf of others.
How did it proceed from there?
I learned that certain things would affect the audience. This was early on as a sideman. The things that were effective and powerful to me in terms of my own conception sometimes did not affect the people I was playing with. Those things I began to question. I began to keep without question all the things that would cause someone to turn and look.
To keep the things that were musically effective?
Yes, exactly. One of the things was the riff or ostinato figure. This was equivalent to someone saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” No matter what you were doing you would have to look because it would become interruptive. There was social control. It came down to a deeper study of the psychology of social interaction and the effect of music, more so than the study of scales, modes or theory.
I knew I’d found my sound when I had experienced enough interrupters that always turned heads, or applause. That’s when I knew I was communicating, and those were the things that created my identity.
In regard to your sound could you tell us about the succession of instruments you’ve played in your career?
Well, my Les Paul Custom was stolen in 1965. I was performing with Jack McDuff at The Showboat, a club that no longer exits. The next day we were due to open in Chicago on the South Side. Our entire van was stolen between the dates, all the instruments were lost. When I got to Chicago, Jack McDuff took me to a pawn shop and purchased a cheap guitar. In fact, it was so cheap I had to use a matchbook to hold the pickup to the body under the strings, otherwise it would have fallen into the guitar! I used that for one night.
The following day I called home and borrowed some money from the family. I went out in Chicago and bought a Gibson ES-175. It was like the one pictured on Wes Montgomery’s second album, The Incredible Jazz Guitar. From that point forward I began to use carved-top hollow-body guitars.
That was quite a transition, from solid bodies to big hollow bodies…
When I began to get serious about archtops and to adjust to the instrument and its physical demands, I went from the 175 to a Johnny Smith model.
Is that the guitar pictured on the cover of your first solo album, 1967′s El Hombre?
That’s exactly what it was. I went through a lot of trouble with the Smith model when I began to play with louder groups. The problem was the feedback from the body and the floating pickup hanging from the neck. I used to stuff the guitar with sheets and pillowcases; that would turn it into a solid body. Then I got an L-5CES.
That was the guitar on the cover of 1967′s Strings and ’68′s Baiyina?
Yes. I used that guitar until I met (luthier) Sam Koontz; bless his soul, he’s no longer with us. He came and heard me play, and told me he wanted to build an instrument for me as a gift through respect. He did so. He built that guitar with an oval sound hole, very much like a Howard Roberts model, and a floating pickup. It had a door that would slide over the oval hole; closing off the top and cutting the feedback. I used that guitar on The Visit (1972) and on the live album (Pat Martino/Live, 1972).
Didn’t you play a 12-string electric briefly in the early 1970s?
The 12-string was a birthday gift from my first wife. It was another pawn shop guitar, only this time the guitar cost $80 (laughs)! It looked like a Gibson ES-335, but I think it was a Univox. In respect for her gift, I used it on Desperado (Prestige, 1970). I re-strung the guitar as a regular six-string with unisons on the first, second, third and fourth strings, I left the fifth and sixth as single strings. That much pressure caused the neck to bend. The strings were almost a quarter of an inch off the fingerboard at the time of the sessions. I used that guitar once, just for that record.
Didn’t you also play a Gibson ES-335-12 on other records in that period, like the Barry Miles’ White Heat album?
Yeah, I’m not sure where I got that guitar. Looking back, I guess the 335 brought me closer to using a solidbody guitar (via a semi-solid). Physically, my muscles had to adapt to the proportions of the guitar, and the thinner body. Not long after, I got involved with Starbright (1976).
Starbright had a lot of different sounds. It was a truly eclectic fusion album with acoustic and electric tones, distortion and clean tones, and synthesizers.
Starbright had so many idiomatic suggestions in terms of material and sounds that we had to have a board meeting at Warner Brothers to figure out how to market it. They asked me, “Exactly what do you want to do?” That’s how the Joyous Lake band came about. Warner Brothers wanted a definite image to market. I was with Gibson at the time. They notified me that they had just come up with an L5-S, a solidbody L5 model, that wasn’t on the market yet. Gibson asked if I wanted to use it. And I did. That’s when I really got back into a playing solidbody guitar again.
What happened next?
I was touring with the band behind the Joyous Lake record. Seizures were becoming so powerful and frequent that I had to stop performing publicly. Physically, I wasn’t able to. I came back from Europe and went into a hospital in New York City, that’s where I lived at the time. Not long after that, I got divorced and moved to California. Since I had decided not to perform in public, I stopped using the L-5S. Ibanez designed an instrument for me as a gift and I used that occasionally. In fact you can see a picture of it in my book, Linear Expressions. This was a solidbody guitar with intricate abalone inlay across the top of the body, fingerboard, and head.
Is that when you were teaching at G.I.T.? Didn’t you also use an Ovation acoustic?
Yes. At the same time, Ovation wanted me to try the Adamas. They asked if I would endorse it, and I was happy to. That’s the guitar you see on the cover of Linear Expressions.
Was that your only Ovation?
There was another that I designed for them and I ended up selling or giving to Earl Klugh, in Detroit. The guitar was exactly like the one on Linear Expressions, except it was a doubleneck version.
Did it have six-string and 12-string necks?
Nope. It had two six-string necks; the top neck was E-B-G-D-A-E, and the bottom was E-A-D-G-B-E. Both were standard tuning. The top neck was upside-down, the bottom neck was right side up. It was a natural inverted instrument, like a mirror image. A right or left handed player could pick it up and feel comfortable on either one of the necks that fit their ability. I played both necks, but I never recorded with it since I wasn’t active at the time as a performer. I do have some private recordings, though. After that came the neuro syndrome. (Ed. Note: Martino suffered a brain aneurysm in 1980, and underwent successful surgery.)
What can you tell us about your condition and the recovery?
Recovery is still taking place. In fact recovery is something that begins at birth (laughs). I’d had seizures since the late ’60s. They were all misdiagnosed. Finally, when CAT scan and MRI came in the mid to late ’70s, the diagnosis was correct. They gave me two hours to live. I was actually relieved; there was joy in the truth. I knew I wasn’t insane, and no longer had to fear electric shock or being placed in a locked ward or contemplate suicide.
I had to have an emergency operation. I decided to fly back to the East Coast and that trip took five and a half hours; another misdiagnosis. I made it back, they performed the operations, and I made it through. After the first operation, I went into a coma for 19 hours. The second operation was successful, but I came out with total amnesia. Nothing was familiar.
Including the guitar?
Yes. I was totally unfamiliar with the guitar.
How did you work your way back?
In stages; it took a decision on my part. I procrastinated most of the time, until boredom became the canvas. When boredom became painful, I needed something to take my mind off it. Then I began to enjoy music again and the guitar became a toy. Since I remembered nothing, it was a childish and playful relationship. It was starting from the beginning again. It was a wonderful experience, unencumbered by career orientation or desires. It was not laden with musicianship, having to read music, or any concerns of the craft.
The guitar became my favorite toy. In the beginning it wasn’t, it was my father’s possession that I wanted to touch. I played the instrument I wasn’t allowed to touch as a child. Through the playfulness, things started to come back. When I got disappointed or tired of the toy, I went to the computer.
I also used the computer to balance my recovery. I entered data to give me information as text. I went from the guitar to the computer; that allowed the playing to remain playful.
When did you get back into playing?
I didn’t get back into a relationship with the guitar until ’83. At that point, Tommy Gumina approached me and asked to endorse a solidbody he had just designed for Polytone. I used and endorsed that guitar, and Polytone amps, for about a year and a half.
At that time, I performed again for the first time; professionally, as opposed to locally in small rooms. I went back to New York City to play the Bottom Line, using the Polytones. At that concert (luthier) Abe Rivera came backstage and told me he would love to build an instrument for me, as a gift. And he did. I named it Scepter, like a regal wand. That was the second time that I committed myself to a solidbody guitar.
Is that the carved guitar seen on the cover of the 1987 album Return and the videotape performance in Legends of Jazz Guitar?
Yes, but it weighed a ton! The Rivera guitar was made of exotic woods that were extremely heavy, and it had pearl inlay. It was a beautiful guitar, though… a work of art.
Wasn’t that your primary guitar in the ’90s?
Yes, for many years.
Didn’t you flirt with a black Gibson Les Paul Custom again in ’90s?
Yes. Since the operation, I found it necessary to re-establish a relationship with my past and my identity. And to try to experience an authenticity that was overlooked the first time through. It was a necessity to try out a Les Paul Custom again.
Did getting reacquainted with a Gibson solidbody lead to the Pat Martino model?
Not directly, though it may have created a subliminal hunger for it.
Tell us about the creation of the Pat Martino signature model (see sidebar)…
Mike McGuire from Gibson asked if I’d be interested in seriously endorsing Gibson, which I had done in the ’70s. I was only interested in endorsing my own model, primarily because I had luthiers building guitars for me for years. Just to endorse a different instrument didn’t interest me. Mike said we would definitely want a P.M. model.
The next question was, “What are we working with?” Gibson had some ideas that never reached fruition, and we started there. He brought to my attention a Florentine-cutaway body. I went with that because I really liked the L5. I wasn’t crazy about the semi-curve cutaway of the L5-S, it wasn’t strictly a Florentine because it didn’t have a point on the edge. I wanted a thin body approximately the size of a Les Paul; maybe a little bit bigger and shaped more like an L5 without the density or width. We went with that. It’s got a semi-hollow body like a 335, with mahogany wood and a carved maple top, like a Les Paul.
I wanted nothing on the fingerboard, like a classical guitar. I figured if we got fancy with inlay it would raise the price. We put dots on the side of the fingerboard only. We used a smaller head with straight string pull. It was used previously on another model, I don’t remember which (Ed. Note: The ’97 Gibson Les Paul DC-Pro and the ES-336 models had a similar headstock). That appealed to me because I consider E-to-E (open strings) at the nut to be the first position. I play with my first finger below the nut then and adjust my fingerings for open strings. The nut is the first fret, literally, and therefore familiar, not a separate entity. That seems logical to me.
After that, Gibson sent me a number of blueprints. We worked on details and, finally, it reached fruition in ’98.
What amplifiers have you used over the years?
Keep in mind, there’s a difference between my relationships with all of these realities than most guitar players. In my case whatever comes up from social opportunity is useful. I adapt to it. If a Roland JC-120 is available to me, it’s because Tom Glenn from Roland Corporation, a good friend and former student, had one shipped to me as a gift. And therefore that’s what I used.
Finally, the more active I became and have become, the more difficult it became to depend on personal items. For years I relied on riders to make instruments available on the road. I came to find out that in most cases Fender amplifiers and Roland JC-120s were the most available and I specified a second amp in case the first one was damaged. When this proved unreliable I was open to change for practical purposes.
What change?
I had a discussion with (bassist) Buster Williams at a festival in Oregon, the Mount Hood Jazz Festival. I’d had some trouble with a JC-120 on stage and he told me about a company that had just built him a bass power amp. It weighs six pounds; you can carry it on the plane in a shoulder bag yourself. It’s no bigger than a cigar box. I was interested. It was an Acoustic Image amp. That’s what I use now. On current riders I just specify speaker cabinets, monitors.
Do you use the Richard Raezer speaker cabinets whenever possible?
The Raezer’s Edge cabinets are tremendous. They are well-made and beautiful; they are also precise and clear. The only problem is that they aren’t available in the middle of nowhere.
What is your ideal sound when recording?
When recording I go directly into the board. I stopped using amps when recording from Interchange(1994) on. I rely on the engineer to enhance the sound; I admit it is a gamble. The typical direct guitar sound is flat. I have to have it colored to give it more resonance and warmth. In sessions I interact with the engineer. I always did, even when I used amps for recording. Back then there was an intermediate stage between us, the amp. In retrospect it was of no value other than a personal desire to hear what you hear during stage performance in the studio. That in itself is unrealistic. The studio is not a stage; it’s sterile, like an operating room.
What is your current setup?
I use a Gibson Pat Martino Custom or Standard and the Acoustic Image Clarus amp. I recorded Live at Yoshi’s with the black Standard. I recorded the new album, Think Tank, with both.
In the studio, I use the Clarus direct, as a preamp, into the board. There’s a direct out on the unit which bypasses effects as well as the Clarus itself, which I use for more authenticity and personal identity.
Do you have a favorite album of your early years?
Consciousness. What stands out is the facility. It wasn’t my favorite album in terms of recording quality; in fact it’s far from close. I would also pick Joyous Lake for different reasons. Now that I think back, I would also name We’ll Be Together Again.
Unlike many jazz guitarists, your albums have never had sameness in terms of repertory or ensemble. The minute one hears East, you throw Baiyina at them; this is followed by Desperado and The Visit, We’ll Be Together and Joyous Lake. The records seem very different, in tone, from each other. Eventually, maybe 30 years later, you’re hit with Baiyina again, only it’s called Fire Dance.
There’s a mega-cycle taking place. I view it as a larger scope, like four seasons of a year. Things reappear at a later date; like Stone Blue and Joyous Lake. There are other relationships like that: Interchange and Consciousness, Nightwings and Strings.
Tell us about the new album, Think Tank.
The project was a challenge, initially. I was asked to use a different lineup but refused and chose my own. It is Joe Lovano on tenor sax, Gonzalo Rubalcaba on piano, Christian McBride on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums. Gonzalo is from Cuba and is one of the greatest pianists alive. It’s an eight-song repertoire on the album. Four of the compositions are mine: “Think Tank,” “Dozen Down,” “Quatessence,” and a ballad named “Before You Ask. “
Of the other tunes, one was written by Harold Mabern, one by Jim Ridl, one by an alto player, Joe Ford, and one by John Coltrane – “Africa.” We began with 14 compositions as the format. Those that didn’t fit peeled off. What were left were the eight selections on the album.
I’m very excited about the result. The sound is more intervallic than anything I’ve done before. It’s more so even than “Noshufuru” (The Maker, 1994). That makes it feel to me like a dedication to John Coltrane. The group is like a family to me. And Bela Fleck wrote the liner notes.
What are some of the highlights for you?
There’s a duet with just me and Gonzalo on a gorgeous Jim Ridl song “Sun On My Hands.” My tune “Think Tank” is specifically dedicated to John Coltrane. It’s like a minor blues and is based upon an alphabetic junction of three words: Coltrane, tenor, and blue. That’s where the song came from. There are 26 letters in the alphabet from A to Z. Below the alphabet, attached and interfaced to it, is the Aeolian mode (the A minor scale: A to G), three and a half times, seven letters tied to 26 letters of the alphabet. For example, Coltrane came out as C-O-L, the first three notes of the phrase or the notes C-A-E. T-R-A-N-E came out as F-D-A-G-E. And so on. It’s a lot of fun to compose this way.

Above Photo:Coutesy of Pat Martino

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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