Pat Martino was just 22 when he stepped through the hallowed doors of Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio to record his first date as a leader. A veteran of a series of great bands—particularly the organ groups of Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, and Richard Groove Holmes—the kid knew the blues. And he had speed.
El Hombre is an organ-drenched speedfest that shows off this Philly kid’s ability to play soulfully, spinning out seemingly endless solos shot through with blue notes, flatted fifths, and thirty-second runs. It was Martino’s calling card, and this was his party. And it is, appropriately, a good time.
The Martino story can’t be told without a mention of his 1980 brain aneurysm, which resulted in amnesia and a total loss of his legendary guitar skills. In the following seven years, Martino listened to his own records and retaught himself how to play, renewing his astonishing technique and bringing to it the sheen of experience. You imagine that, in copping his own riffs, Pat Martino could have done no better than listening to El Hombre at great length.
The personnel on this debut is neither imposing nor disappointing. Trudy Pitts is (to this day) a strong Philly Hammond player, and here she gets to devise dozens of settings for Martino’s taking-on-the-word sound. Danny Turner, from McDuff’s group, plays tasty flute on some selections. Mitch Fine is the drummer, with two-hand percussion on board for flavor on tunes that swing in three, four, and six. The band keeps up with the kid, and that’s plenty.
In 1967 Martino came out of the bag with a rich history of recent style-changing players—always-always Wes Montgomery, but also Grant Green and Kenny Burrell. Martino sounds in some ways like his contemporary, George Benson, in the fluid way that he translates Montgomery’s impulses into something more insistent and, if possible, prettier. On a Latin treatment of Jobim’s “Once I Loved”, Martino plays Wes-style octaves, but he also unfurls gorgeous runs that start on the low E-string and push upward like rising water. On “A Blues for Mickey-O”, Martino is smack-dab in the center of the blues, and he has the wisdom not to rush too much. His solo quickly gets into the effective use of repeated phrases, and he makes a point of not playing more fancy bop changes than a straight blues can bear. There’s just enough bite to his attack that you hear something contemporary, but there are also echoes of old tunes such as “Teach Me Tonight”. When he moves to the Wes octaves again for a couple of climaxing choruses, it feels alright.
More often, though, there is the young cat’s incredible speed. On “Waltz for Geri”, Martino seems to have a bottomless bag of ideas, and he yanks them out one after the other without seeming to take a breath. Amazingly few of them sound like regurgitated practice patterns. Rather, they come out like shards of potential songs, actual compositions in motion. No other soloist dares to play on the song.
The title track is a tune in 6/8 that may even be slightly faster. The melody is articulated as harmony with the flute, with the hand percussion percolating beneath as incitement to riot. Martino comes out of the gate with harmonic invention and rhythm on his mind, wrapping licks around the insistent organ figure with abandon. The flute solo adds color and precision before the tight melody returns. “Cisco” and “One for Rose” swing up-tempo too, in four, with the same formula making for great listening. “Just Friends” drops the flute but also gallops through the changes, with Martino playing as fluently as on any blues. When he rips down from a high note with a small edge of distortion amidst the speed, you’re able to recapture what must have seemed so special about this kid in 1967—he was an unabashed jazz guitarist who played with a youthful abandon without seeming to defect from the tradition.
There is one previously unissued track on the end of El Hombre this time out, a Martino ballad called “Song for my Mother”. Pitts sounds a bit overdramatic here, coloring the very slow melody, and Turner’s flute seems out of place playing unison with Martino on such a lugubrious line. Still, when Martino begins to solo, there is gold in the way he rises up into a chord and, later, when he gently swings the band with octaves. This kind of track is never what this flag-waving album is going to be remembered for, but it’s good to know that the young Philly axe-wielder has more on his mind than the Indy 500.
As always, Rudy Van Gelder’s sound is exceptional, and the remastering keeps the album crisp and urgent. Today, Pat Martino is fully recovered from his amnesia and playing better than ever. El Hombre deserves to be heard by new fans as well as old ones. Many a young guitarist today will be stunned and jealous, I’m sure, of how fresh this 40 year-old music still sounds.