“There is consonance and there is dissonance,” says Martino. “What gives them importance is motion,
and motion has no sound.” Photo by R.R. Jones

“It’s simply a toy.” That’s how Pat Martino describes the guitar. For many, he’s the father of modern jazz guitar whose pioneering approach has influenced generations of players. But to Martino, picking up his instrument is akin to making morning coffee. He views the guitar as a coffee pot, something that once you know how to use, you stop thinking about. “The guitar has become a significant member of the family,” says Martino from his Philadelphia home. “Whenever I need that experience I go back to it, and it fulfills me, and that’s all I’ve ever asked it to do.”

This “toy” has led Martino, who recently turned 73, to become one of the most influential jazz guitarists in the world—twice. He released El Hombre, his debut album as a leader, in 1967. It solidified Martino’s reputation as a fleet-fingered bebopper who could find his voice within the bluesy soul of an organ trio. Leading up to this recording, he’d spent his 20s apprenticing with such B-3 heavyweights as Don Patterson, Jack McDuff, and the under-appreciated Trudy Pitts (who is featured on El Hombre).

During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Martino’s albums became more experimental as he wove Indian influences (Baiyina), 12-string explorations (Desperado), and more electric instrumentation (Consciousness) into his music. That was when one of Martino’s tunes crept into a jam session Joe Satriani had organized with a few friends. “I remember the chords,” says Satriani, who at the time was deep into blues and rock, yet looking for something to expand his consciousness. “Specifically, it had to do with two chords. He just moved the voicing up while the bass note was the same, but it sounded perfect. We could never handle the ‘bad’ notes like he could handle them.”

“There are no right or wrong notes. It’s when an idea resolves that the magic conveys.”

In 1996, things came full circle when Satriani was asked to play on Martino’s All Sides Now album, which was tracked at Michael Hedges studio. Satriani was tasked with bringing in a few sketches, and as the guitarists were preparing to explore one of these sketches, Martino busted into Satriani’s signature hit, “Satch Boogie.” “It totally blew me away,” remembers Satriani. “Hearing it that way was eye-opening because I always imagined that song with a horn section.”

In the late ’70s, Martino began experiencing seizures with increasing frequency. This led to a diagnosis of arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a disease that required several brain surgeries. The price Martino paid to preserve his health was severe. In addition to losing some of his memory, Martino lost his ability to play guitar. During this time, he moved back in with his parents, and his father would play El Hombre, Strings! (Martino’s second solo album), and other recordings by his son to help him remember who he used to be.

In his 2011 autobiography, Here and Now!, Martino describes the long journey back to playing guitar. “The ability to play the guitar was always there but was latent. It came down to wanting to use it, to give it significance. It’s like the guitar said to me, ‘What do you want to do with me?’”

Martino’s facility slowly came back and led to The Return, a trio album recorded live at Fat Tuesday’s with bassist Steve LaSpina and drummer Joey Baron. “I haven’t listened to it since it came out,” says Martino.

On his first studio album in 11 years, Martino augments his core organ trio with trumpet and saxophone. “I was looking for added texture,” he explains. “It’s been a wonderful experience.”

At this point, Martino has more years of playing under his belt than he did before the musical amnesia. His latest album, Formidable, is just that. Surrounded by his working trio of fiery organist Pat Bianchi and drummer Carmen Intorre Jr., Martino expanded his musical palette by adding saxophonist Adam Niewood and trumpeter Alex Norris. The result, like everything Martino plays, is rooted in the blues and is dripping with the sounds of those organ groups he cut his teeth with in Philly. His trademark attack and buoyant dark tone are everywhere, and his tributes to Mingus (“Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love”) and Duke Ellington (“In a Sentimental Mood”) are as heartfelt and meaningful as anything he’s recorded in a decade.

PG caught up with Martino after his yearly hometown Thanksgiving residency to discuss his complex thoughts on music, how he views the fretboard, and why you should always rock a 4x12 cabinet—as long as you don’t have to carry it.

It has been over 50 years since El Hombre. After many decades of releasing records, does the feeling of getting new music out into the world change at all?
No, it hasn’t. There’s something about the process that is repetitive in terms of what must be done and how it must be done. It just unfolds with a specific identity: the personnel, organizing personnel, and choosing the material, which has a great deal to do with those personnel.

You’ve made the organ trio your home, so to speak. Yet for Formidable, you chose to include saxophone and trumpet. Did the material dictate that choice or were you looking for added texture?
I was looking for added texture. The availability of some great players, and just looking for a change, had a great deal to do with it. Adam [Niewood] and Alex [Norris] were brought to my attention by several people, including Pat Bianchi, the organist, who was familiar with both. And so too was Carmen Intorre. I was impressed and I thought it would really be a great move to go out as a quintet, and it’s been a wonderful experience.