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Pat Martino: Live at Yoshi’s

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Illustration of Pat Martino
Pat Martino (illustration: Johanna Goodman)

Living out an ambitious father’s aspirations and his own boyhood dreams, guitarist Pat Azzara’s burgeoning talent was so pronounced that by the age of 15 he found his slender frame stretched out horizontally in the back of a hearse, lying on organist Charles Earland’s gigantic Leslie cabinets, as he hit the road in the first of a series of chitlin’-circuit gigs that made him a star in the bands of such soul titans as organist Don Patterson and Brother Jack McDuff, saxophonists Willis Jackson and Sonny Stitt, and vocalist/big-band leader Lloyd Price.

Then, having adopted his father’s old stage name, Pat Martino established himself as the most adventurous postmodernist to emerge from the mainstream jazz-guitar pack in a celebrated series of solo recordings for the Prestige and Muse labels, boldly combining rootsy elements of the urban blues and R&B with bebop, 20th-century harmony and Third World mysticism. Here at last was a guitarist with the velocity, endurance and imagination to match the linear melodic flights of such jazz giants as saxophonist John Coltrane and trumpeter Clifford Brown. This initial creative arc reached a peak in the mid-’70s with a major-label contract from Warner Brothers and the formation of his dynamic fusion ensemble, Joyous Lake, but with his new found success came an uncharacteristic degree of moodiness and emotional withdrawal: psychological changes that were symptomatic of then undiagnosed physiological traumas. When headaches progressed to seizures, Martino underwent a CAT scan in 1980, which revealed a massive brain tumor. Pat Martino had two days to live. Returning home to Philadelphia, he underwent a pair of complicated operations-upon awakening, his creative prism had faded to white.

Over the next two decades, Martino had to rebuild both his sense of self and his guitar technique-literally from scratch. Gradually he got back into the swing of things with a series of combo recordings for a variety of indie labels. Then after All Sides Now, a so-so set of all-star encounters as his maiden voyage for the Blue Note label, Martino hit the mother lode by reteaming with keyboardist Delmar Brown and drummer Kenwood Dennard to revive Joyous Lake (along with the formidable bassist James Genus and young tenor titan Eric Alexander) for an excellent set of originals on Stone Blue. Here, for the first time in recent memory, Martino’s gifts as a soloist and arranger functioned to equal advantage as he mined a vein of gold in that nether world between jazz-funk and postbop modernism.

Stone Blue stands as perhaps the finest album Martino ever crafted, and live performances by Joyous Lake proved just as incandescent. However, in a backwards glance toward a bygone era, Martino’s subsequent Blue Note project is something of a strategic retreat into the retro realms of the guitarist’s youth, and while the organ trio he chairs on Live at Yoshi’s doesn’t ascend to the dizzying ensemble heights of Joyous Lake, this is a raw, engaging live performance that shines the spotlight on Martino the guitar player and showcases his renewed authority as a soloist in the company of two masters of the form-organist Joey DeFrancesco and drummer Billy Hart.

Martino’s trio displays a genuine rapport all through this recital on a nice selection of originals and jazz standards from the Miles Davis/Sonny Rollins/Bill Evans orbit (“Oleo,” “All Blues” and “Blue in Green”), and the guitarist sounds so fluid, relaxed and commanding it’s a joy. Part of the credit must go to virtuoso organist DeFrancesco, who too often in the past came across like a touch typist on bennies, but here sounds as though he’s beginning to find a real aesthetic comfort zone-allowing the action to come to him rather than forcing the issue with glib fusillades of notes. On the opening “Oleo,” DeFrancesco’s earthy, robust bass lines and spare, calculated big-band flourishes provide an ideal launching pad for Martino’s locomotive, elliptical lines, as drummer Hart coyly juggles groove authority and textural abstraction. Then on “All Blues,” the organist and guitarist engage in a smoky, film-noir dialog at a coy, irresistible tempo, as Martino’s trumpetlike melodic figures build to a cascading flurry only to find the organist and drummer down-shifting back to a spectral pianissimo, as DeFrancesco patiently rebuilds tension before calling in the warm jets. All in all, a mature, measured, masterful performance.

The trio retains its taut, deliberate approach throughout, never giving in to generic bluster, and Hart’s pedigree as both a modern-jazz innovator and as a veteran of the funky-butt idiom is money in the bank: His effortless shifts between vamp and release help supercharge “Mac Tough,” as he shadows Martino’s driving lines with fulminating cymbal textures, ceding the bottom to DeFrancesco, whose own solo is dead on in the grits and gravy tradition. And while Martino maintains a tight grip on the rhythm by playing right up on the edge of the beat with a straight eighth feel against a swing groove, his phrasing has evolved to the point where it is more circuitous and breathlike, less relentlessly percussive than in the classic romps of his youth, which is part of what gives ruminative performances like “Welcome to a Prayer” and “Blue in Green” such a welcome air of wisdom and restraint. Likewise, given the heavy strings and high action he has always favored in his setup, the timbre of his attack has sweetened considerably, while he now employs a more nuanced array of left-handed bends, trills and glisses to flesh out his lines.

Still, for those toe-tappers who yearn to get up on the Harley and listen to the engine roar, the joy and jet propulsion with which Martino navigates chorus after chorus on “Recollection,” “El Hombre” and “Catch”-routinely doubling and tripling up into tense, flowing melodic passages of epic duration-should assuage the nostalgic amongst you, and allow Martino a brief interval of reflection until he’s ready for another thrust into the unknown.