In popular music the word “survivor” is attached to almost anyone who gets past one-hit wonder status. In guitarist Pat Martino’s case the word carries a newer and truer meaning. A brain aneurysm in the early ’80s meant that he lost all memory regarding music. Not only was he unaware of his status as a highly regarded figure in the jazz world but he had no knowledge whatsoever of the instrument that had made him famous. The road back was hard and painstaking. So when I tell you that the 57-year-old Philadelphian is in better form than ever it is no mere platitude about a veteran performer.
Hammond-guitar groups are open to criticism but at their finest have a particular raw power. To which I would add that if this is not the best example currently to be heard then I want to hear the superior act. Live at Yoshi’s seems to me to embody all the virtues and very few of the vices of a public, if not a highbrow, favourite among jazz set-ups. It is not completely free of the much publicised generic limitations but the upbeat numbers swing like an axe and the slower tunes have that smoky, late-night atmosphere that remind you why you got into jazz in the first place.
Let’s deal with the deficiencies first. This is no “envelope pushing” session. If you can’t stand Jack McDuff, Charles Earland, Jimmy McGriff or Richard “Groove” Holmes then you will hate organist Joey DeFrancesco, who is as crucial to this recording as Martino. Secondly, if the guitar/Hammond format appears too restrictive in the extreme facets, I suggest you take heed of the following. Think of this as much as a rhythm and blues form as a jazz one. Now, noone’s going to tell me that electric guitar and organ aren’t apt vehicles for the blues. On an even more basic level, the secret to enjoying outings like this is turn the volume UP. Only then will the barrage of sound sweep you away as it should. One of the reasons why people love this music live but get tired of it on the stereo is that they treat it as background music or as a normal acoustic trio. Totally Wrong. This is music to annoy the neighbours with.
Actually the uniformity of both Hammond and jazz guitar has been greatly exaggerated. Lonnie Smith sounds no more like Charles Earland than Bud Powell sounds like Oscar Peterson. For the record, DeFrancesco-Martino is more Earland-meets-an-amplified-Wes Montgomery than anything else. Drummer Billy Hart also adds an energy and a presence you don’t often get from percussionists within this genre. All three are totally fired up and if audience response is any gauge it must have been some night. From a breakneck take on Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo” to the complete abandonment of the long closing track (“Catch”) everything pumps along like a steam engine. Introspective this is not — even the moody tunes seem bursting to move up a gear — and occasionally do indeed break out into something more motorised.
Martino’s ability to improvise and trade licks at pace constantly impresses and his comrades lose little in comparison. Apart from the Rollins cover I would highlight “EL Hombre” as a tasty example of funk on the run. This is a truly turbo-charged ride and the one point where the mighty Hammond will not be bested — DeFrancesco leaves all in his wake. Overwhelming in the most exhilarating way. Martino then playfully applies the brakes, executing some of the most melodic of runs before a brief spurt to the finish.
“All Blues” and “Blue in Green” may seem lame choices for the down-tempo pieces but are, as it happens, inspired. “All Blues” in particular is so well handled that in future I can see it becoming a certainty in the Hammond repertoire. “Welcome to a Prayer” also deserves mention. Very “Round Midnight”-ish — it shows the group off nicely and Martino’s fluid style to perfection. There is actually quite a chunk of the 80 minutes running time devoted to the bluesy ballad side of the street but such is the exuberance of the more fiery cuts that they seem like brief pauses for breath.
There is a hint of the much-trumpeted sameness between numbers. Eighty minutes is a fairly exhausting amount of time, whatever the variety of instruments. However, just when the interest starts to drift, Martino et al. crank things up a gear or veer off into a delightful side road and you are fully alert once more. I am biased as I love this type of music — partly because of its lowly status, I must admit. If you share that affection, this comes out second best only to seeing the trio live. Even for the more skeptical, purely at the level of technique it can hardly fail to register. Fans of the electric guitar in any of its manifestations will marvel at the ease with which Martino organises his solos and makes the changes. Hopefully, once caught by that, the passion and the groove will take over. If not, I’d stick to chamber music.
Martino, whose career stretches right back to supplying rock ‘n’ roll licks for the likes of Chubby Checker and Bobby Darin, first made his mark playing with some of the ’60s’ best known organ combos. Even the most nostalgically inclined will have to admit that this current line-up is the equal to any of them. But remember — PLAY IT LOUD.