Players and admirers of jazz guitar tend to be a cliquish lot. Even more than saxophonists, they love the instrument as much as the music it produces. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that, contrary to popular opinion, the instrument is not readily adaptable to jazz. It could not be heard, as a solo instrument, before the use of microphones changed the way we listen to music, and many of the early virtuosos did things on recordings that they not did repeat in actual performance, where they would not be heard above the horns.

All of this changed when the Gibson Company of Kalamazoo began to produce the famed ES-150 amplified guitar in May 1936. Amplification enabled Charlie Christian and his followers to create a new melodic way of playing jazz on the guitar. But a uniformity of sound often limits the voice of the electric instrument, creating a challenge for players — who often concentrate on technical playing that impresses other guitarists — but not for the average listener. And yet, as is the case in any art, a small number of instrumentalists have overcome all of this to form their own styles and their own sounds.

Pat Martino certainly belongs to this group. By the time he took up the guitar in 1956, the instrument was well established in modern jazz. He had the benefit of studying with Dennis Sandole, who also taught John Coltrane, and he quickly developed not only a fabulous technique, but also a subtle theoretical sophistication. His career blossomed early, and soon he was on the road with organ trios and recording for Prestige records, first as a sideman to soul jazz greats such as Willis Jackson and Jack McDuff and then, in 1967, leading his own groups. The funky early records established his reputation, but his own releases demonstrated a much broader musical palette and a musical curiosity that led him in various experimental directions.

In the late 1970s he had medical problems, and he was eventually diagnosed as suffering from a brain aneurysm. An operation saved his life but left him with amnesia: he had no recollection of having been a musician, much less a virtuoso guitarist. It took some time, but with hardly anything more than sheer willpower, he taught himself to play again and regained his place among the top list of modern jazz guitarists. A second medical crisis and family problems sidelined him once again, but in 1994 he returned to music a second time and since then has been making up for lost time, releasing close to ten recordings, doing clinics, teaching and lecturing, and touring the world.

His style has evolved, but certain critical elements have been constant in his playing: powerful and yet clean articulation, a sure-footed sense of melodic and harmonic direction, a singing tone, and strong rhythmic drive. One of his early influences was Wes Montgomery, and he is currently on tour promoting a tribute recording that honors that man's work. He's at the Kerrytown Concert House with his quartet on Friday, June 2.

[Review published June 2006]