Pat Martino tribute concerts and documentary screening
(The Django/The Roxy, NYC. 6 January 2021. Report / review by Dan Bergsagel)
On 1 November 2021 Patrick C Azzara – better known as Pat Martino – died in Philadelphia. Pat Martino was undeniably a giant of jazz guitar, and his passing was discussed touchingly by many in the industry. LJN carried tributes from David O’Rourke who knew him well, and from Ant Law who was influenced by him.
Martino was a South Philly guy, but he spent some of his formative years in Harlem; New York City left an impression on Pat, and Pat left an impression on New York City. Two months after his death, some of the city’s musicians reflected on Pat Martino in their own way as part of a multimedia tribute evening in Tribeca featuring two groups – a Rick Germanson trio and a multi-guitar extravaganza at The Django, and a film screening at the adjacent Roxy Cinema.
FILM Martino – Unstrung
The evening started with a screening of Martino – Unstrung, a 2008 documentary by Ian Knox with neuropsychologist Paul Broks funded by the Wellcome Trust in London. In the context of a tribute after his death, the documentary acts as something of a detailed – and partially self-reported – obituary covering: his early history, his musical career, his health crisis and subsequent recovery and return to music. The Wellcome Trust’s interest in Martino was largely focused on his remarkable brain: shaped by a tumour as a child, disrupted by a near-fatal aneurysm and life-saving surgery, and its subsequent response. From a neurological perspective Pat’s story is fascinating, and the film confronts this in an open and interesting way. It is clear that it is impossible to disentangle the ‘bundle of worms in his brain’ (the arteriovenous malformation) from his personal and musical life.
The documentary leans well on musical luminaries from diverse genres (Carlos Santana, Pete Townshend, John Mulhern) to describe his work – “from space”, “flying, swooping and delightful” – as well as friends and family. Martino’s first wife Geri Taber simply describes it as “music to tap your foot to, to make love to”.
Unstrung is such an engaging piece because of the interviews and time spent with Martino himself, in bars in Philadelphia, driving around Manhattan in yellow cabs, or in his living room at home. And here you realise that the film isn’t really about Pat’s brain injury and recovery, or about his music, but about Pat himself. His musings to camera stretched from seemingly inconsequential things, like struggling to control his plectrum technique to avoid breaking strings (concluding with the refreshingly simple “just get heavier strings”), to his trying period in hospital after receiving electro-shock treatment misdiagnosing (“Trying to participate in what they referred to as ‘lunch'”), to new information on the extent of his brain that was now missing after his surgery (“Would this be a loss?… I’m only missing disappointment, I’m missing criticism”).
While the documentary isn’t about Pat’s music it is still a piece about a prominent musician, and considering this it has notably poor-quality recordings throughout. Yet, in amongst the muffled sounds of clips from his rehearsal room, there is one short moment which sumptuously explains the depths of Martino’s talent: Martino mundanely quibbles with Milton Mermikides about starting a backing track playing, but then suddenly he begins to play and we are sucked into his guitar – fluid, relaxed, thick, and deeply touching. In amongst a documentary about the brain’s ability to adapt and recover, this is the moment that reminds us of Pat Martino’s special talent recently lost.
The first live tribute of the evening was a trio led by Rick Germanson. Germanson played with Martino from 2003 to 2008, and features on piano in the final concert recording in Martino – Unstrung at Birdland in 2007. He is clearly emotional, and his introduction to Pat speaks of real friendship and loss. Their ballad Ann Elizabeth cuts through the distractions of the bustling Django, before a Germanson original Interloper forces its way through. Throughout, the trio leave leeway for memories of Martino without forcing them on us – this is a piano trio with a notable absence centre stage, implying a space where a guitar player might sit.
The second tribute takes a more boisterous and celebratory approach to memorialising Martino as a hero, mentor and inspiration – instead of leaving space to mark his absence, there are jazz guitarists as far as the eye can see. The group is built around Martino’s last gigging band – a rhythm section of Carmen Intorre, Jr. on drums and Pat Bianchi on organ – with guest guitar pairs stepping in. The first pair of Mark Whitfield and Paul Bollenback brings energy and excitement to the stage with cheeky grins and expressive body language as they pick over Bianchi’s organ support on Harold Mabern’s Phineas Trane. On Martino original Alone Together Whitfield brings real speed to his playing, but it is perhaps the cooler, melodic trumpet lines of Alex Norris that more closely match the calm out-of-body playing of some of Martino.
The second guitar pair perhaps more closely matched Martino’s playing spirit with Peter Bernstein and Dave Stryker playing warmly and calmly on Lean Years. But there was a feeling that – to truly hold a candle to Martino – one needed all four guitarists to share the stage at the same time, as they did for a rendition of Impressions. Martino may have passed away this year, but on this basis his teachings will be carried forward by the generations of guitarists that follow in his steps.