S. Philly's Pat Martino: 'I'm a performer'

Posted: November 23, 2007

Even on a modern contrivance like the telephone, speaking with Pat Martino gives the sense of what it must have been like to sit at the feet of a philosopher in ancient Greece.

Regardless of the question asked, the guitarist speaks in universal terms, offering pathways for further exploration rather than concrete answers. One might expect such a master of his instrument to have a wealth of technical and experiential knowledge to hand down to young musicians who seek his tutelage, but that direct teacher-student relationship is one he frowns upon.

"It's difficult for me to carry files of information like baggage," Martino said from his South Philly home. "I'm not really a teacher. I'm a performer. The best that I could possibly offer to any other individual is to give them the opportunity to witness what ignites ecstasy for me personally."

Despite the six-string acolytes who may come to him seeking information about his warm, mellifluous tone or the understated precision of his playing, Martino has no interest in imparting practice techniques or equipment specifications. Instead, he hopes to impart "an inner sense of self-esteem and sense of a rewarding experience that transcends the music."

Martino takes that approach not only with potential students, but with collaborators as well. When Martino makes his usual Thanksgiving-weekend visit to Chris' Jazz Cafe, his quintet - with pianist Rick Germanson, bassist David Ostrom and drummer Scott Allan Robinson - will feature tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, a gifted instrumentalist 24 years Martino's junior.

The two met when the guitarist heard Alexander at a jazz convention in the late '90s accompanying organist Charles Earland, with whom Martino also had performed early in his own career.

Impressed with the tenor's "full and rich and powerful" sound, Martino offered him a position on a reunion tour with a late-'70s fusion group that Martino had led with keyboardist Delmar Brown and drummer Kenwood Dennard.

In the decade since, Martino and Alexander have appeared fairly regularly with each other's groups.

In any collaboration, Martino said he looks for "something that I think is innate for all people in every field of endeavor. I'm looking for sensitivity in a world that seems at times to be chaotic and very insensitive."

But regardless of whom he plays with (and he also promises a duet with his wife, Ayako, whom he's been teaching guitar for more than a year), Martino stresses the importance of keeping a mind open to all possibilities.

His goal is to "interact with other individuals who are seriously dedicated to what they do, and more than anything that are seriously dedicated to the moment that they have the opportunity to socially interact, not only with other musicians, but with the environment that they're in and the people who are in that environment, whether they're musicians or not."

The Philadelphia native has an obviously holistic approach to his music as part of a larger philosophy of life and art. It's a concept born 27 years ago on an operating table, when Martino had 60 percent of his left temporal lobe removed following a life-threatening brain aneurysm, the end result of a congenital disorder known as arteriovenous malformation.

The procedure left Martino with significant memory loss, and in his mid-30s he had to relearn his instrument, eventually making an incredible recovery and regaining his status as one of the jazz world's leading guitarists. He's had a longer career since the operation than before it - only he doesn't consider this second act as a "career."

"My career literally came to an end at that very moment," he said of the surgery. "From that point forward, my interest was no longer in my profession; my interest was in survival as a human being. It erased the blackboard, and I found myself in the same position as I was as a child."

That ability to reconnect with his childhood sense found one payoff in Martino's most recent recording. He refers to "Remember," his 2006 tribute to his mentor, guitarist Wes Montgomery, as being less an homage to Montgomery than a selfish act on his part.

"It was a return to accomplish something that I set out to do when I was a child," Martino explained. "When I was 13 years old, listening to certain recordings of the Montgomery Brothers, as well as Wes as a leader, I dreamed the day would come that I would be able to function with so much dexterity. I wanted to be able to play music that strong with other musicians."

In a way, the experience showed Martino that the pursuit of success, with which he associates the early years of his career, has a tendency to obliterate an artist's initial goals. "I think quite a number of elders failed to achieve what they initially wanted to as children in their playfulness," he said. "Somewhere down the line, maybe they feel that there will come a day when they may retire, and then they can do it, but in the meantime, they have to adhere to the regulations of their profession. And in most cases when they do retire, it's too late."

Send e-mail to bradys@phillynews.com.

Chris' Jazz Cafe, 1421 Sansom St., 8 and 10 tonight and tomorrow, $30, 215-568-3131, www.chrisjazzcafe.com.

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