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Arts Desk

This Virtual Guitar Summit Will Honor and Aid Jazz Guitarist Pat Martino

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Amie Goodman
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Pat Martino

A dozen of the world’s best jazz guitarists will convene on Saturday, March 20th at 8 PM for the 2021 edition of the Alternative Guitar Summit (AGS). Founded in 2010 by guitarist Joel Harrison, AGS’s goal is to honor a living guitar legend by having some of the most accomplished guitarists of today interpret their work.
The legend to be honored this year is Philadelphia’s own Pat Martino. Though, musically, Martino is probably best known for his epic and incendiary solos, the focus of this tribute is on an aspect of his musicianship that tends to garner less ink: his original compositions.
 

"We're just going to do all we can to let him know how much his playing has inspired everybody." -Peter Bernstein

“What all the great guitar players agree upon is that his artistry is unique,” said Harrison, who’s curated a lineup of diverse styles to underscore Martino’s wide-ranging idiomatic fluency. “[Martino’s] deeply, deeply rooted in African-American jazz culture. Swing music in an organ trio—that was the music of his time. This was before so-called fusion. And he imbibed that and absorbed it and, along with George Benson, is one of the greatest living exponents of that.”
 
“But then,” Harrison added, “you’ve also got this restless composer, who’s written everything from these wild, electronic 20th century-style classical compositions, to solo guitar pieces, to really complex fusion-oriented stuff with the Joyous Lake (1977) project, to swingin’, simple, just groovin’ pieces, and it’s really something.
 
“It’s a humbling position these guitarists are putting themselves in to play this music because some of it’s not easy.”
 

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Credit Scott Friedlander
Guitarist Joel Harrison

That intrepid group will consist of five pairs of guitarists; each pair will play two Martino tunes each— one as a guitar duet, another backed by a rhythm section. Adam Rogers will play with Peter Bernstein, Dave Stryker with Paul Bollenback, Rez Abbasi with Jeff Miles, Oz Noy with Nir Felder, and Sheryl Bailey with Ed Cherry. Dezron Douglas (bass) and Allan Mednard (drums) will serve as the primary rhythm section, with Martino alums Chulo Gatewood and Tobias Ralph guesting on bass and drums, respectively. Additionally, Harrison and Howard Paul, CEO of Benedetto Guitars, will play solo sets, and Kurt Rosenwinkel will beam in a pre-recorded solo set from his home in Berlin.
 
The rest of the concert will be presented as a live-from-recording-studio livestream. The venue was purposely chosen; in addition to audio and video being livestreamed, audio will be recorded in studio and the plan, per Harrison, is that, together, these tracks will become an album, made available commercially via HighNote Records.
 
“We’ll cull the tracks and see what we’ve got after the fact,” Harrison said, “and I think we’ll be able to put together a wonderful record.”

More Than Just a Tribute

While there’s never a wrong time to honor a musician as widely influential as Martino, the circumstances have become more exigent over the course of the past year; a combination of chronic pulmonary disease and muscular issues in Martino’s left hand have left the now 76-year-old guitarist unable to tour and, really, unable to play at all.

According to Martino’s longtime manager Joe Donofrio, Martino, in almost all likelihood, will never play again. For someone who immersed himself so deeply in the instrument, in the repertoire, in technique—not once, but twice (read on)—friends and colleagues fear an involuntary end could portend fallout both spiritual and financial.
 
So, in addition to celebrating Pat Martino, this year’s edition of the AGS will also benefit Pat Martino.
 
The livestream concert is a free, “pay-what-you-wish” event. When you register online to stream the show, there will be a donation button allowing you to contribute to the production costs. And on the day of the show (March 20th), any contributions made will go directly to the Pat Martino GoFundMe campaign. In the meantime, anyone, regardless of whether they stream the show or not, can donate to Martino’s GoFundMe at any time.
 
It bears mentioning that this is not the first time Martino’s faced down daunting existential odds. Most jazz aficionados know the story, but it’s such a remarkable human story of hope and courage that it ought to appeal just the same to the rhythmically challenged and the tin-eared and the musically agnostic.
 
You don’t need to understand or appreciate Pat Martino’s revolutionary approach to soloing with endlessly repeating eighth note triplets to be moved by Martino’s story—though if you dig that sort of thing, see the video below around the 2:40 mark and notice how Martino boldly raises the stakes of the tune, knowing Joey DeFrancesco (Hammond B-3 organ) and Byron Landham (drums) will elevate the groove accordingly.
 

 

But even without being moved at all by the above display, consider that 22 years prior to that 2002 concert at the Umbria (Italy) Jazz Festival, the guitarist you just heard suffered a massive brain aneurysm that, after life-saving surgery, left his mind a veritable blank slate.
 
Originally from South Philly, Martino turned pro at 15 and moved to New York, quickly catching on at Smalls’ Paradise and hanging with his boyhood hero, guitarist Wes Montgomery. Just as Montgomery had memorized Charlie Christian solos as a kid, Martino had memorized Montgomery’s. After the 1980 aneurysm and surgery, he didn’t remember how to play guitar; he didn’t remember that he’d built a very successful career over the preceding 20 years playing the guitar; he didn’t remember his family or anything about the person people told him Pat Martino was “before the event.”
 
Profoundly lost and severely depressed, Martino weighed his options as he saw them. “It was either I do something that absorbed my attention or consider suicide,” he told LehighValleyLive.com in 2014.
“I reached that level and I chose the former and began to play with toys like a child does.”
 
Well, really just the one toy that in his past life had been the most treasured: the guitar. “It proved to be a virtual lifesaver,” wrote NPR’s David Was in a 2006 Martino profile, “more than just the resumption of a career.”
 

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Credit Yuki Kunishima
Paul Bollenback

Martino relearned how to play the guitar from scratch, listening to his old records and tapping into what some speculate to be a preternatural feel for the instrument.
 
“I’m not a neurologist,” said one of this weekend’s participants, the fusion-minded guitarist Rez Abbasi, as he chuckled at stating the obvious. “But on this plane, there are some gifts we all have, and I think [the intuition and ability needed to play guitar] is just what Pat had, and it couldn’t be taken away.”
 
Others on this weekend’s bill, like Paul Bollenback, one of the few guitarists working today who makes a case for being as much of an organ player’s dream as Martino, credit a big heart in a slight frame.
 
“His comeback is indicative of where his strength lies, which is in his willpower and his ability to continue on and keep going no matter what,” Bollenback said after recounting a story about the time, just a few summers ago at Litchfield (Ct.) Jazz Camp, when he introduced Martino as a guest speaker. Martino hopped on stage and proceeded to lift an unsuspecting Bollenback into an airborne bear hug.  
 
“We almost both fell down, but I couldn’t believe it, man,” Bollenback added, laughing. “He was that strong. Here’s this skinny guy, and he picked me up off the ground. I most certainly did not anticipate that.”
 

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Credit Jimmy Katz
Guitarist Peter Bernstein

Over the years, it’s almost become safe to expect the seemingly impossible from Martino. Those playing his tunes this weekend know better than to try and imitate the venerable master; nor will they try to reinvent the wheel. It’s egos to the side for a weekend that’ll be “all about Pat.”
 
“We’re just going to do all we can to let him know how much his playing has inspired everybody,” said celebrated guitarist Peter Bernstein, who, in addition to being featured recently on WRTI’s NPR Live Sessions, has led some of the most celebrated organ trios of the 2000s. “If you get a chance to cross paths with someone and let them know that they changed your life, you want to tell them, you want to remind them.”

Register for the March 20th livestream guitar concert tribute and fundraiser here.