Pat Martino: Born-Again Jazz

All That Jazz: April 2009

Pat Martino

Pat Martino and his favorite guitar | Photo: Jimmy Katz

American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald said “There are no second acts in American life.” Too bad he couldn’t meet American jazz guitarist Pat Martino for he might have changed his mind: not only did Martino have a second act, he also got a second chance at life. How many musicians do you know that have had to learn to play their instruments all over again?

Just picture a child prodigy, performing on stage at an age when others are just starting to put their fingers on the frets. After a couple of albums in his early twenties warmly greeted by critics and fans alike, Martino then turned to Indian music, to electronic instruments and synthesizers, ever expanding his musical language.

Yet, despite all the success, he was experiencing explosive rages, behaving erratically and suffering from unbearable headaches and seizures. Alcohol became a refuge… with the expected results. He was misdiagnosed as manic depressive, schizophrenic even. The suggested cure was medication, electric shock treatments, stays in psychiatric wards. All without result. That was until the fateful day in 1980 when a particularly bad seizure landed him in the hospital where doctors discovered a brain aneurysm ready to burst. Warned that he could die within hours Martino was immediately operated on.

The procedure was a success – except for one small detail: when he woke up, Pat Martino couldn’t remember anything at all. He not only didn’t recognize his parents and friends, he had forgotten how to play the guitar.

Recovering at his parents’ house, he wasn’t sure he wanted to play music anymore. His father tried playing his recordings for him, to no avail.

“I didn’t want to hear that; I didn’t like it,” he explained in a 2006 interview with All That Jazz. “I saw the albums, and I saw the guitars, and I saw a responsibility of something everybody wanted me to do. And I didn’t feel that I had to do that, to please them. I had a lot of pain going on and I didn’t want to please anyone. I wanted to overcome the pain and hopefully at some point enjoy being alive.”

Overcoming his pain, Martino slowly returned to his guitar, relearning it through his own recordings and computer programs. “It got me back into the manuscript and the pencil, the staves on the blank page,” Martino explained to Down Beat, “and I wrote 516 studies of Japanese, Hungarian, Chinese, and Byzantine scales. I got deeply involved with different cultures of music.”

Yet, despite a highly publicized comeback, another tragedy struck in 1989 and 1990 as he lost both his parents. Martino was devastated. After falling into a period of deep depression, he again had serious health problems, which again almost killed him. He finally came back in 1994 and has been touring regularly ever since.

Commenting on his “two” careers in an interview for the April 2004 issue of Guitar Player, Martino said: “The first time around, I was a dead-serious youngster who was tuned in to the competitive nature of our culture and was fully motivated to achieve success […]. My second relationship with the instrument began in a much more intimate, innocent kind of way. The guitar became a playful resting place during a period of intense therapeutic recovery.  It allowed me to take my attention away from my ordeal.  I was able to enjoy the guitar in a pure and almost childish way – like a child does with a toy. I think we’re ultimately chosen to be childish. That’s exactly how we come into this world and exactly how we leave it. The guitar just happens to be my favorite toy.”

His playing reflects the change that occurred in Martino’s life. Gone are the days when he was breaking strings because of his hard playing. Now, Martino, still the same virtuoso he was when he started his career, is a little cooler. Some would say more cerebral. The sight of this austere-looking musician – deep in concentration, poised, almost shy, elegantly dressed with his nicely trimmed white hair (I’ve always been convinced that Pat Martino was the lost twin brother of Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts…) running through the fluid, endless chains of notes he’s famous for, or using his trademark-lick, the repetition of a single note or a simple phrase in order to build tension – is without any doubt one of the most exciting spectacles of today’s jazz scene.

For his current tour in Europe and his concert at Vienna’s Porgy and Bess, Pat Martino will perform together with organist Tony Monaco and drummer Louis Tsamous. Inevitably, the classical guitar-organ-drums combination brings us flashes from the sixties with its churchy, bluesy and funky sounds then so popular. For Martino, this almost seems like a return to basics since his first public appearance was, more than 50 years ago, in a Philadelphia club with an organist. Tony Monaco plays in an enthusiastic and spirited style that reminds us of organ master Jimmy Smith. His old accomplice, Louis Tsamous, will provide his usual energetic and polyrhythmic support.

This is a concert esteemed to deliver – not only by guitar fans and guitarists (expect to see several of them on that night!) but by anyone enjoying hard-driving jazz!


Recommended listening

(all under Martino’s name)


El Hombre (Prestige/OJC, 1967)

Consciousness (Muse, 1974)

Exit (Muse, 1976)

We’ll Be Together Again (Muse, 1976)

All Sides Now (Blue Note, 1996)

Live at Yoshi’s (Blue Note, 2001)

Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery (Blue Note. 2006)


Pat Martino Trio with Tony Monaco (Hammond B3) and Louis Tsamous (drums)


April 12, 20:30

Porgy and Bess

1., Riemergasse 11

(01) 512 88 11


Musicologist Jean-Pascal Vachon teaches at Webster University Vienna and gives lectures on the history of music at various venues around the city. In addition, he also contributes texts and works as a translator for the Swedish classical label, BIS.

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