Arts & Life

Pat Martino's Amazing Jazz Comeback

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Jazz musician Pat Martino lost almost all memory of his family and his career after suffering a brain aneurysm in the 1970s. But he was able to reverse much of that loss by studying his old recordings and re-learning to play the guitar. He performs this weekend in New York City — musician and Day to Day contributor David Was profiles Martino and his amazing comeback.


There is unintended irony aplenty in the title of jazz guitarist Pat Martino's New Blue Note CD, which is called Remember: a Tribute to Wes Montgomery. It's musician and DAY TO DAY contributor David Was.

DAVID WAS reporting:

26 years ago, Martino couldn't remember a thing after a brain aneurysm, and surgery left him with a virtual blank slate for a mind. The guitar great of the '60s and '70s had to listen to his own albums, and relearn an instrument that had been in his life since he was a teenager growing up in Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: When Pat was 14, his father, Carmen, took him to see jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery at a local club, and he got to meet the man many consider the finest player of the post-World War II era.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: In 1972, Martino first expressed his admiration in an album called The Visit, meant as an homage to Wes, whose use of the soft part of his thumb instead of a pick gave his own work a muted attack, and an intimate emotional quality.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: Montgomery's trademark use of octaves while stating a melody can be heard on Martino's version of Road Song.

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WAS: Just as Montgomery had memorized Charlie Christian solos as a youth, so did Martino memorize Wes solos. His fluency in that bluesy jazz idiom made him a first-call sideman for funky organists like Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: In Martino's words, "What I found most interesting about Wes were his emotional interpretations. The magic of curiosity and it's result. Like Wes, I was primarily self taught, mostly from melodies I heard, and not scales."

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: The magic of curiosity might well be what saved Pat Martino, post-amnesia. At first, he refused to take up the guitar again, even though his father kept after him to do so. After a self-imposed exile in Amsterdam, he returned to a punishing regimen of therapy, anti-depressants, and even a spell in a locked psychiatric ward where the anger at his condition poured out.

Eventually, he came to terms with his loss, and started to play with what he calls his favorite toy, the guitar. It proved to be a virtual lifesaver, more than just the resumption of a career.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: "Life is a miracle," says Martino, whose own tortuous odyssey from amnesia to self-realization is proof positive of that. At 61 years old, he has recovered his former powers, and now plays with a joy and abandon that guitar shredders half his age should be in awe of.

His tribute to Wes Montgomery is mostly a tribute to his own indomitable spirit.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: The music of Pat Martino. He performs this weekend in New York at Rose Hall. Our reviewer, David Was, is half of the musical duo, Was/Not Was.

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