Since reemerging in 1994 after a brain aneurysm effectively made it necessary to relearn how to play his instrument, Pat Martino has found himself in a variety of recording situations. Most of his recent albums as a leader have been made for Blue Note, but even a brief survey of those reveals Martino as a restless spirit, constantly shifting styles and bandmates to pursue his ever-evolving muse. Recent years have seen the guitarist largely abandoning the slightly trippy modal workouts that informed his best Prestige LPs from the late ‘60s in favor of getting back to his soul jazz roots, as on 2001’s Live at Yoshi’s and his guest spot on The Philadelphia Experiment project. For this reason alone, his new release Think Tank is likely to raise more than a few eyebrows, as it marks a return to the modal-flavored hard bop upon which his reputation is largely based.
Martino doesn’t pull any punches, either, as one look at the lineup he’s assembled for his journey quickly proves. The band is as close to all-star as it gets in jazz these days, featuring saxophonist Joe Lovano (himself a Blue Note regular), pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Lewis Nash. As is so often the case (Lakers fans, back me up here), putting together a collection of ringers doesn’t necessarily translate into the uncompromising brilliance that can be achieved by a working group, but the results of their meeting as collected on Think Tank are certainly worth checking out.
The band is at its most effective on a trilogy of spiritually inclined pieces: “Think Tank”, “Africa”, and “Quatessence”. According to Martino, the CD became sort of an unintentional tribute to John Coltrane, particularly after Martino composed the title track using a mathematical system based on the letters of the saxophonist’s name. Beyond its academic construction, though, it’s easily the disc’s highlight, balancing the guitarist’s jittery arpeggios, Nash’s exquisite snare work, and Lovano’s heated restraint to effectively capture the spirit of its tributee. Their take on Coltrane’s “Africa” is also worth mentioning, if only for the utter genius of Rubalcaba’s playing (which, incidentally, is on display throughout the CD). The pianist exposes himself as a highly adept accompanist, whether reserving himself with a spatial economy that’s the perfect antithesis to Martino’s voluminous runs, or striking the ideal combination of rhythm and harmony to bridge the soloist and rhythm section.
Somehow, though, the partnership between Martino and Rubalcaba doesn’t extend as successfully outside of the quintet format. They strip down to a duo on “Sun on My Hands”, stretching out a surprising lack of rapport for nearly ten minutes that could’ve been better spent elsewhere. Even adding Lovano to the mix for “Before You Ask” doesn’t do much to break the tedium—without the interactive push that McBride and Nash bring to the session, the guitar and piano don’t seem to connect as well. Fortunately, it’s only two tracks out of eight, which makes these departures less significant to the disc’s overall vibe.
And besides, it’s not all mellow introspection and sleepy duets—there are another three uptempo pieces that provide crucial equilibrium, displaying the entire quintet’s technical abilities in a series of complex heads and treacherous meters. Of these, “Dozen Down” is probably my personal favorite, as it somehow manages to be funky among all the flying chops, thanks in no small part to McBride’s first opportunity on the record to shine through all the front-line firepower. The disc’s final track, “Earthlings”, is another well-timed blast of energy in more of a straight-up bop style, notable for disclosing the full potential of Nash and McBride’s rhythmic muscle that’s conspicuously absent for most of the recording.
Even with a few missteps, Think Tank still manages to bring together all of its disparate elements with a refreshing sense of joy that’s elusive in much of today’s mainstream jazz. It’s good to hear that Pat Martino hasn’t given up on the spiritual side of his playing (even though a certain spirituality does shine through in his more groove-oriented work); if this disc is any indication, he may very well just be hitting his stride in this remarkable second phase of his career.