If Pat Martino’s career had ended with his brain hemorrhage in 1980, when he was in his mid-30s, he would have still secured his place in history through dozens of recordings documenting the jaw-dropping technique that impressed people so much that it almost obscured the extraordinary depth of his authority with soulful blues playing. That he managed to defy the odds and relearn how to play from that point is the stuff of legend, a story that has been widely documented in the world of neuroscientific medicine but is one of the most underrated heroic stories in the jazz canon. Though he is now no longer with us, his second act was also remarkable and I’ll always be grateful for his inspiration and for the fact that he got to enjoy so many additional years of playing and corresponding accolades. With regret for omitting wonderful recordings by Brother Jack McDuff, John Handy, Charles McPherson, Joey DeFranceso, Eric Alexander, and many from Pat’s own discography, here are some of my favorites.
1 ) “Jingle Bells” from Holiday Soul by Don Patterson (1964)
The intersection of grits-n-gravy blues organ and bebop fluency is no better exemplified than by the longstanding relationship between Pat and Philly organist Don Patterson. If you ever wanted to hear people so swinging that they can make “Jingle Bells” into a booty-shaker, look no further.
2 ) “Just Friends” from El Hombre (1967)
This bright, swinging performance from Pat’s first recording as a bandleader is my choice for the definitive instrumental recording of this jazz standard and is one of the best examples ever recorded of fluid melodic lines from a jazz guitarist. Another Philly organist, the underappreciated Trudy Pitts, accompanies beautifully and gets in a nice solo of her own.
3 ) “It’s Too Late” from One, Two, Free by Eric Kloss (1972)
Another Philly-based musician and frequent collaborator, saxophonist Eric Kloss included Pat on a wide variety of recordings. This one incorporates angular, modern harmonies and rhythms into a super-funky rendition of Carole King’s then-contemporary hit.
4 ) “Impressions” from Consciousness (1974)
The burning soloing on this up-tempo performance is definitive 1970s Pat and indeed pretty definitive jazz guitar “shred mode” in general, except more swinging and tasteful than that might imply. The only complaint here is that this performance is so short – I would gladly listen to five times as much.
5 ) “Open Road: Olee/Variations and Song/Open Road” from We’ll Be Together Again (1976)
This whole duo record with keyboardist Gil Goldstein is gorgeous throughout, and this extended composition of Pat’s that opens the album is quite the tour de force, moody, sophisticated and emotionally potent.
6 ) “Bar Wars” from Bar Wars by Willis Jackson (1977)
Bluesy, gritty saxophonist Willis “Gator” Jackson was the first bandleader to record a then-teenaged Pat Azzara (his given name) – Pat played on four Gator records in the 1960s and then four more collaborative albums in the 1970s once they were on more equal footing stature-wise. This grooving blues from the latter category also features the soulful sounds of organist Charles Earland and drummer Idris Muhammad.
7 ) “Catch” from Interchange (reissued as Mission Accomplished) (1994)
Though not his first “comeback” recording, this whole album is a great representation of his full recovery. This energetic swinger spotlights his important collaboration with pianist Jim Ridl and is buoyed by the pocket of Philly drummer Sherman Ferguson, who played on several of Pat’s early ‘70s recordings.
8 ) “Grover” from Philadelphia Experiment by Philadelphia Experiment (2000)
This eclectic record mostly features the Philly trio of Uri Caine, Christian McBride, and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, but on this tribute to Grover Washington, Jr., they feature Pat as well. His mastery of funk pockets is well-documented (I urge you to check him out playing the R&B classic “Sunny,” one of his signatures) and this is a great example of that.
9 ) “Phineas Trane” from Think Tank (2003)
You might think that hearing Pat play Harold Mabern’s tribute to two of my own most formative influences in a burning quintet featuring Joe Lovano, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Christian McBride, and Lewis Nash would be something I’d find particularly appealing. And you would be correct.
10 ) “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” from Formidable (2017)
I could easily do a top 10 list of just my favorite Pat Martino ballad performances (which, in spite of his propensity to play flashy stuff, is every bit as natural to his sound as that), so I’ll conclude the list with this Charles Mingus chestnut, performed live with Pat sounding authoritative as ever into his mid-70s.