Saturday, November 6, 2010

Pat Martino and Table 51

It was about 7:15 on a Friday night outside of Chris’ Jazz Café and I was talking to a woman outside the front door about my reservations for dinner and to see jazz guitarist, Pat Martino. I told her my name and that it’s a table for two and my wife was joining me in a few minutes. “Here it is,” she said. She looked at the woman just inside by the doorway and said, “Table 51.”

I followed the second woman past the crowded bar area through a narrow pathway against the wall passing tables full of people enjoying themselves and continued walking directly toward the stage. She stopped at the stage where there was a small table for two directly in front of Martino’s music stand. “Enjoy your night,” she said. “I certainly will,” I thought. The stage at Chris’ is only about a foot off the floor. I ordered a drink and the food for dinner. As the mushroom ragout, apple salad appeared so did Maria (she has a habit of appearing when food arrives). “Isn’t this a little too close?” she asked. I told her that’s a possibility.

As we were enjoying a shared dish of Jambalaya, Martino stepped out of the darkness of the tables, his signature Gibson in hand and made his way to the stage, along with his band mates Tony Monaco on the Hammond B3 organ and drummer Jason Brown. As soon as they got settled Martino counted off the first song and like a shot the three musicians began playing as if the building was on fire. Right then we both knew we had the perfect seat—an arm’s length from arguably the greatest living guitar player. Then I was upset because I didn’t bring my camera or my flip camcorder but quickly relaxed and enjoyed the moment.

Martino, dressed in pressed blue jeans, leather boots, blue jacket, green shirt and orange tie on his extremely thin frame is the picture of integrity. It’s with this same integrity that he approaches his music and his audience. Still, composed, spending much of his time sitting on stool but getting up every so often during high-octane moments, his long bony fingers lie across the guitar as if he is playing all five strings at once. What he is doing is playing melody and rhythm with exceptional speed and clarity with a technique that I’ve never seen. In fact it’s difficult to describe his technique and style in ways one normally plays the guitar. It’s kind of a holistic approach. Technique, precision, speed and artistry all rolled into a single person. No matter the how fast he’s playing or how difficult the passage, each note has a clear, distinct ring.

A video of Martino playing a Chris' Jazz Café in 2008

A total contrast to Martino was Monaco, whose body lunges and jerks all over the massive wooden keyboard, his one shoe off banging his stocking foot on the long wooden foot pedals beneath the keyboard while his face stressed and contorted in undefined expressions. Halfway through the first song he threw his sports coat to the ground. The knot of his tie was already down to his chest. As the first song ended his face was a puddle of sweat. After the first song, Monaco told Martino, “It sounds great. I’m happy.” He wasn’t the only one.

I couldn’t see Brown who sat directly behind Martino, but I could hear his steady beat and the way he was able to keep pace and lead with the constant changes in rhythm and intensity of sound.

Guitar solo on "Impressions." Recorded at Chris' in 2007

Martino, who lives in South Philadelphia in the house where he grew up, plays in his home town about twice a year. He spends much of his time playing around the world. He is particularly popular in Japan. Before the show, I was saying to Maria that it would be great to see him perform in some pristine Japanese nightclub in front of an audience that appreciates Martino and Jazz more than Americans. However, after watching his performance from Table 51 in the casual, cozy confines of Chris’ Jazz Café, and then seeing him mingle with some neighbors and family members afterwards, I couldn’t think of a better place to see this incredibly gifted hometown boy.

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