On eve of Pat Martino's Celebration of Life event, Russell Malone reflects on the guitarist’s legacy
Pat Martino, who died November 1, 2021, was truly a guitarist’s guitarist. Possessed with a unique combination of fluidity and virtuosity, combined with a rock-solid sense of rhythm drawn from this time with hard-driving organ trios, Martino influenced multiple generations of guitarists. His life and music will be celebrated in a series of concerts close to a year after his passing, on November 3-6 in Somers Point, N.J., in a four-day event aptly titled A Celebration of Life. Amongst the six-string brethren paying tribute to Martino in performances at Gregory’s Restaurant and the Gateway Playhouse there in Somers Point are Mark Whitfield, Peter Bernstein, Sheryl Bailey, Dave Stryker, Fareed Haque, Joel Harrison, Wolf Marshall, Charlie Apicella, Howard Paul, Rodney Jones, Jonathan Kreisberg, Russell Malone and fellow Philadelphian Jimmy Bruno. The writer Bill Milkowski, who co-wrote Martino’s autobiography Here and Now, will open the festivities on November 3 with a keynote address on the guitarist’s legacy.
Backed by former Martino sidemen Rick Germanson, Craig Thomas and Byron Landham, Malone and Bruno will headline a show at the Gateway Playhouse on November 4. A passionate advocate of jazz guitarists past and present, Malone spoke with WBGO about Martino’s influence on himself, as well as his legacy as an innovator on that instrument.
Malone vividly remembers the first time he heard Martino. “There were two records that I purchased of his back in the late ‘70s,” he recalls. “It was Exit with Billy Hart, Gil Goldstein and Richard Davis, and then I came across another recording of his around the same time called Consciousness.” The latter album released on Muse featured an all-Philadelphia band of Eddie Green (piano), Tyrone Brown (bass) and Sherman Ferguson (drums), and was included in Tom Moon’s critically acclaimed book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.
Malone confesses that he was totally blown away by Martino on many levels. “First of all, his sound was so full and so present, not to mention the facility he had” Malone says. “And his attack and his timing. When you mention Pat Martino, people focus on his great technique. He could really get around the instrument. But Pat’s time was rock solid. He had a deep sense of time and that drive in his playing was like a locomotive. It was just so strong and forward moving.”
Although reluctant to pin down Martino’s influences, Malone initially cited not the expected choices of Wes Montgomery or Grant Green, but rather the relatively obscure Billy Bean. Bean, also a Philadelphia native, recorded with John Pisano, Herbie Mann and John Lewis, but lived most of his life as local musician in his hometown. Influences aside, Malone emphasizes that “Pat Martino sounds like Pat Martino.”
Malone maintains that part of Martino’s magic came from playing in organ trios around Philadelphia. “With some of those guitar players who came up in the organ trios like George and a few other ones, there’s this thing they have in their playing,” he explains. “I’ve always felt that George Benson and Pat Martino were very similar because they both had this great technique and that drive in their playing and they swung like it’s nobody’s business. Those organ players are very intense. Pat was able to match the intensity of these guys. I mean everybody can’t do that. There are a lot of great guitar players who play very well, but there’s just a certain thing that Pat Martino had.”
In turn, the distinctive Martino influenced several generations of jazz guitarists, including, of course, Malone himself. “Listen, when I first got started on jazz guitar, Benson was my main guy and then I went from George to Wes,” he explains. “Then I heard Pat. We were all trying to play like that. He was just such a wonderful, marvelous player.”
The two would play together a few times over the years and Malone recalls one particular occasion at the Berks Jazz Festival in Reading, Pa. where they were both part of a tribute concert to Wes Montgomery. The guitar summit featured Martino and Malone, along with Paul Jackson, Jr., Larry Carlton and Jimmy Bruno. “We had a great time,” Malone says. “Just standing next to Pat Martino, it was really scary. Imagine you go to the zoo, and you see a lion or bear behind the cage. You know looking at that animal from outside the cage that it’s a very forbidding animal. Now imagine being inside the cage with that animal. They seem to look a lot bigger than seeing them on the other side. You know that at any given moment, they can just rip you to shreds. And that’s the way it felt, standing next to Pat Martino in the band.”
Martino lived his life in a city, like many, marked by segregation and racism. The jazz scene there in the city of so-called Brotherly Love during the 40s, 50s and 60s was perhaps best known for the great musicians who came out of the Black neighborhoods, such as Coltrane, Benny Golson, the Heath brothers, the Barron brothers, Ray Bryant and Philly Joe Jones. However, the white section of South Philadelphia featured a robust jazz scene as well, producing a host of notable players over the years including Joe Pass, Dennis Sandole, and, most recently Joey DeFrancesco. Thankfully, jazz players like Martino managed to bridge those racial divides through their music, playing with many of the organ greats, as well as collaborating with the seminal fusion band Catalyst, which featured Odean Pope, Eddie Green, Alphonso Johnson (and later Tyrone Brown) and Sherman Ferguson.
“Pat hung out with a lot of the Black musicians,” Malone says. “They loved him because he was just a soulful guy and they took him under their wing. Pat seemed not to have racial hang-ups. He just wanted to play music.” For his part, Malone feels fortunate to have gotten to know the legendary guitarist. “Pat was an incredible human being and a formidable musician…and a nice man,” he says.
Malone says he’s not sure what he’s going to play during the concert. “Nobody’s going to go in there trying to prove anything. It’s not going to be any cutting contest. Jimmy Bruno and I, we’re just going to try and go in there and make some good music in honor of Pat. I’ll probably play maybe one tune by myself with the rhythm section and Jimmy will probably do the same thing. I don’t know what he’s planning to do, but we’re definitely going to play one tune together. We’ll just try to honor this great musician.”
The event was organized by Martino’s longtime manager and confidant Joe Donofrio, who also is the artistic director and event producer of the South Jersey Jazz Society. “The planned Celebration of Life and Legacy comes nearly a year to the day Pat passed away on November 1,” Donofrio said in a press release received at WBGO. “It was not an ideal situation to try and gather musicians and audience during the past COVID cycle and we look forward to recognizing and celebrating his genius with his many musical colleagues."
Surprisingly, the event is free, but tickets are required for entry. Learn more here.