Philly jazz guitar maestro Pat Martino cut his teeth performing with incredibly important icons of the soul jazz scene, getting booked at clubs he wasn’t even old enough to enter yet as a patron. As Martino’s career progressed, he moved beyond the soul jazz sounds of his youth to embrace a wide range of esoteric styles.
Martino’s impressive catalog of work has earned him recognition as one of the eminent jazz guitarists of his generation. Through all the stylistic transitions of Martino’s career, one consistent element has remained: The inspiration Martino has found in the life and work of Indianapolis guitar great Wes Montgomery.
The guitarist's appreciation for Wes extends far beyond musical concerns. The two guitarists developed a personal friendship that permanently altered Martino’s perception of the role of an artist.
I caught up with Martino via telephone as we discussed his extraordinary career in music and his deep respect for the life and music of Wes Montgomery.
NUVO: Mr. Martino, I know you devoted your life to music at a young age. You started recording with the great tenor sax player Willis Jackson in 1963 while you were still a teenager. Over the next couple years you recorded about half a dozen records with Jackson. How did you get started recording professionally at such a young age?
Pat Martino: I think the first movement in that evolution started with Charles Earland. Charlie was a tenor saxophonist at the high school I was going to at the time in South Philadelphia. Charlie and I became very close friends. We wound up going to Atlantic City at some point, and there used to be a place there called the Jockey Club. We went to the Jockey Club and there was Jimmy Smith and his trio with Kenny Burrell.
When Charlie heard Jimmy Smith for the first time he gave up the saxophone and devoted his life to the Hammond B-3 organ. In doing that, the next three weeks we rehearsed at a garage near where Charlie lived and we put an organ trio together. I wound up going to Buffalo, New York with Charlie and we played at a place called the Pine Grill. We were at the Pine Grill for two weeks, and during that time the Lloyd Price band came in. In Lloyd Price's big band were players like the Turrentine brothers — Stanley and Tommy, Charlie Persip was the drummer, Curtis Fuller was in the group, and Red Holloway and "Slide" Hampton — just one after another great players. Julian Priester was in the band too. It went on and on. That was the propulsion that brought me into a professional career.
When the band heard me, Lloyd Price offered me a position as guitar player. I was just a teenager at the time, but I accepted the position and wound up in New York City. I worked New York City with Lloyd Price's big band and whenever I was off I would work with Willis Jackson who I met through the same series of events. That took place at Small's Paradise, which was owned at the time by Wilt Chamberlain. During the summer, I would work Atlantic City with Willis Jackson and on all the dates off I would go back and forth between Willis and Lloyd Price's big band on the road. After that was a series of events that led to record contracts and interacting with a lot of other players.
NUVO: You've played with so many great legends of jazz, including some of my musical heroes. But there was one particular musician I wanted to ask you about that doesn’t get talked about very often. You played on a couple of her records and she played on your debut record.
Martino: Are you talking about Trudy Pitts?
NUVO: That’s right, she’s a favorite musician of mine. Can you talk about working with Trudy Pitts and what sort of person she was?
Martino: Gosh, I mean Trudy Pitts was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful person. She was an artist at the highest level and one of the great organists, to be honest with you. Along with Shirley Scott and all the other giants like Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith and so many others.
Trudy... I don't know how to begin. I worked with Trudy and Bill Carney in the earlier years of my career. I was on a couple of Trudy's albums. Eventually when I got my "leader" contract with Prestige Records I chose to have Trudy on my first album because of the rapport between us. We worked out locally in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio during those days. Trudy was just wonderful in every direction.
NUVO: That's actually the first record I heard you on, her debut album Introducing the Fabulous Trudy Pitts. I bought the album because I was fascinated by the photo of Trudy on the cover. The first track on that record was “Steppin’ in Minor” and I was just mesmerized by the sounds she was getting out of the organ. So I became interested in your work through that recording with Trudy.
I think all of your records are classics and I’m huge fan of all your work. But there was one particular album I wanted to ask you about, your 1968 LP Baiyina -The Clear Evidence (A psychedelic excursion through the magical mysteries of the Koran). You came from a soul jazz background and Prestige Records wasn’t known for making experimental records, but that was an experimental record.
Martino: I became influenced by interacting with a number of great artists. One of them was John Handy. We lived in San Francisco when I joined John Handy's group, which included Bobby Hutcherson and Albert Stinson. When I joined that band I stayed in John's house on Haight in San Francisco. Above John's was a series of apartments and one of the apartments was used by Ravi Shankar. That's how I began to become exposed to ragas from Indian music and tala systems as well. Baiyina, in 1968 was an extension of those influences. I became very interested in odd time signatures and the instrumentation with the use of tamboura and tabla rhythmically. I think that was my first expression of those influences.
At that time Leonard Feather reviewed Baiyina and gave it five stars. That was a step forward in recognition for me. Coming from Leonard it was a beautiful gift. It was the beginning of many longterm relationships in serious jazz. Especially when it came to the evolution and influences that had an effect on my future from that point forward.
The next cycle from that particular output took place somewhere around 1998, it was an album called Fire Dance. I was asked to join that project which included Zakir Hussain, one of the greatest living tabla players. It automatically brought me back to that Indian music cycle. I was really surprised and excited that it recycled itself over so many years.
NUVO: You mentioned the tamboura and there was one particular musician on the LP I wanted to ask you about, the tamboura player Khalil Balakrishna. I believe that was his first recording in a jazz context, but he later went on to play on some important albums by Miles Davis including On The Corner and Bitches Brew. How did you get connected to Khalil Balakrishna?
Martino: Being affiliated with Prestige Records automatically gave you contact to quite a number of interactions. In many cases it was the decision and choice of the producers involved. So I'm sure that's what brought about the instrumentation and personnel that were chosen.
click to enlarge
Photo by Mark Sheldon
NUVO: You’re going to be performing for Indy Jazz Fest’s tribute to Wes Montgomery, and I did want to ask about your relationship with Wes. It’s my understanding that you first met Wes when you were fourteen and your father took you to a Montgomery Brothers’ concert.
Martino: Exactly. It was a dream come true. At that time I'd begun listening to one of the Riverside recordings of the Montgomery Brothers, which happens to be one of my favorites to this day. That particular album was called Groove Yard, and I think I must have gone through three copies of that album. I would just lift up the tone arm and place it on different cuts and again and again. I’d go back to a particular cut to copy the solo, until finally one by one those albums wore out and my dad would go out and get me another copy. So he finally said, "guess what? Wes Montgomery is in town. The Montgomery Brothers are in town and I want to take you over there." And he did! They were in Philadelphia at a place called Taps. They were promoting that particular album Groove Yard. I met Wes, and of course Buddy and Monk. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. It began a relationship that lasted for a real long time.
NUVO: Can you talk about your friendship with Wes? I’ve read that you had an opportunity to jam with Wes when you’d meet up with him in hotel rooms and various places between gigs.
Martino: That's right. I don't know what to say other than the embrace and friendship that took place. It extended beyond even our personal friendship. A good example is when I was working Small's Paradise in Harlem. I was staying with Les Paul in New Jersey. I said to Les Paul, "Have you ever heard of Wes Montgomery?" Les said, "No, I never did." I said "Guess what? He's playing at Count Basie's. Why don't you come into town tonight and I'll introduce you to the greatest living jazz guitarist." Les said, "You're kidding." I said, "I'm not kidding. He's the best you'll ever hear."
So he took me up on it and I took him to Count Basie's and introduced him to Wes, and there I stood between Les and Wes. I hear Wes say to Les Paul, "Man, you're one of my favorite guitar players. I really loved Charlie Christian and you're the other one. I can't say what a pleasure it is to meet you."
Well, I had to go to work at Small's Paradise and I left. Les stayed at Count Basie's all night long. Finally when I get finished, I packed my guitar and it was after four in the morning. I walked down the street to Basie's. There was Wes and Les standing outside Basie's along with George Benson and Grant Green. We all went over to a little place down the street and had breakfast together. It was a wonderful experience that went beyond friendship. There's something about guitarists in general, that embraces each other in such a wonderful way with so much warmth. It's unusual compared to quite a number of the other instrumentalists.
NUVO: Wes' innovative style has become such a foundational part of our modern musical vocabulary. Because of that I think it’s often easy to forget how revolutionary his sound was. Can you tell us what it was about his work that so strongly attracted you when you first heard him perform?
Martino: I think one of the greatest facets of the significance that Wes meant to me had to do with the style I was subject to at the time and my own evolution as a player. I had listened to some great players, and at that particular time I was really involved with Johnny Smith. Johnny's playing was so accurate and the tones were so pure and that’s how I was influenced by his playing as a specific artist. Then, up came Wes. Wes was totally different than Johnny. Johnny gave me precision. Wes gave me heart and soul. There were major differences between those two artists. That's what Wes was to me, heart and soul.
NUVO: You’ve recorded two albums in you career that are tributes to Wes Montgomery, The Visit! in 1972 and Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery in 2006. Can you talk about approaching his music and taking on his technical style as you perform these tributes to his work?
Martino: I think it's important to realize that when I did Remember the album itself was more on the basis of what I learned from Wes and it had very little to do with the music itself. It had a great deal to do with the influence Wes gave to me as a player. It was a reminder. It was something I thought was necessary for me to get back to after all the time I had moved away from it in between The Visit! and the later date of the release of the Remember. Both of those albums had a great deal to do with my greatest influences. I think of all the experiences I have been granted and gifted with, the greatest of them all was something that transcended the artistry of the individual involved —- and that was Wes Montgomery.
What really affected me more than anything with Wes, was the expansion of a wonderful human being that was not chained through addiction to the instrument like so many guitarists really are. You can go up to a guitarist many times, and he or she can only reflect and only embrace you through that instrument and when the instrument is placed aside and put away, there's not much personally between the two of you.
Wes Montgomery was a human being that was totally, totally energetic as a person, more than as a musician. That's something that affected me more than anything. It told me something about what was more important. It was more important for an artist to be involved with the beauty of life, the enjoyment of others, the brilliance of each and every moment no matter what the tools were within that moment. As opposed to the craft. Some are gifted as craftsmen, and some are gifted as artists. There's a difference between a craftsmen and an artist and I learned the difference through Wes.
NUVO: As I’m sure you know, Indiana Avenue was sort of an incubator for lots of up and coming young Indianapolis jazz players, including Wes Montgomery. You were touring with group like Willis Jackson’s during the 1960s. I’m curious if you can remember playing any of the jazz clubs on Indiana Avenue.
Martino: That's a valid question. It's possible, but I may be failing to remember. Gosh, I can't tell you Kyle how many things have just evaporated. There are so many things to remember, but the most important of all is now. The moment.
NUVO: So what are you listening to now that’s inspiring your work?
Martino: Wow, what am listening to now? Well, as I just said the most important moment of all is now. Therefore, I'm not so interested in my state of mind in the upcoming engagements. I'm more interested in the moment. When it comes to the moment it's hard to say what I'm going to listen to next. This morning when I took a shower, I had playing in the background Cistercian monks chanting Gregorian chant. That was just so lifting in terms of the authenticity of it and the commitment to it as a recording.
It's kind of hard to say what I'm listening to now has anything to do with jazz guitar other than the fact that it's part of what really gives me the enjoyment of life and living. Eventually that comes back to the enjoyment of the guitar which is one of the utensils I find most pleasing and of most service to my enjoyment. So, it's not like before. I remember a time when the only thing I used to listen to was guitar players. Even then, the only thing I would listen to was jazz guitar players. That's evolved in many ways.