Pat Martino was born in 1944 in Philadelphia, and was playing professionally by the age of 15. He cut his jazz teeth playing in bands anchored by the organ, which was a popular format in the 1960s. His credits include stints with famous jazz and blues organists like Jimmy Smith, Richard "Groove" Holmes, and Jimmy McGriff.
El Hombre was Martino’s debut as a leader, recorded in 1967; he was just 22 years old (try to remember that while you are listening to his solos). The presence of the organ during his early years clearly shaped his decision to include Trudy Pitts, also from Philadelphia, on the organ for this recording. The combo was completed by flautist Danny Turner and three sets of percussion: conventional drum kit, congas, and bongos. This gives the music an uncommon sound; the organ is covering the bottom end as well as the comping duties and the percussion is decidedly Latin in flavor.
The overall sound of El Hombre is the essence of late 1950s/early 60s "cool swing." You can hear this music as the soundtrack to a hip cocktail party or a gathering of hippies at a poetry reading. It is easy on the ears, smoothly harmonic (no hint of free jazz here) while rhythmically energetic.
But for the serious jazz-lover, this is far more than hippie-generation elevator music. Martino is a monster player carrying on the tradition of Wes Montgomery, whom he had heard in person while accompanying his father on visits to local jazz clubs in Philly. On some of Martino’s solos (e.g. in "Once I Loved" and "A Blues for Mickey-O") you’ll even hear Montgomery’s signature octave playing, which Martino delivers as if he had invented it. He proves his mastery of bebop soloing on the guitar many times over, playing with the fluidity of the bop trumpeters he admired so much: Donald Byrd and Kenny Dorham. Check out his long, fast lines on the title cut.
But Martino wasn’t defined by imitating the sounds of other established bop musicians. On El Hombre you’ll hear him establish the sound he became known for: playing mostly in the middle and lower registers of the guitar, using high notes mainly for punctuation. It gives him a sensuous, romantic sound even when the sixteenth notes are flying from his fingers.
"Song for My Mother" is a special surprise on this Rudy Van Gelder remastered version of El Hombre, as it was previously unreleased. This pensive, soulful homage to Martino’s mother sounds unlike any other cut on the record. At an almost dirge-like tempo, Martino mixes more deliberate note choices with his fluid runs, and winds up his solo with some lovely, slow octave playing.In 1980, Martino underwent several brain surgeries after suffering a severe aneurysm that was potentially terminal. The surgeries saved his life, but the jazz world was stunned to learn that as a result of all of the brain trauma, Martino had completely forgotten how to play the guitar. But he refused to let his musical creativity be surgically removed, and he began a miraculous comeback, teaching himself to play the guitar once again. By 1987 he was back playing live gigs again, and he has been recording off and on as a leader ever since, including a 2006 release on Blue Note called Remember: A Tribute to Wes Montgomery. Remember indeed; one of the ways Martino learned to play again was by listening to his own old recordings. I am sure that El Hombre featured prominently as a teacher, the older student now following his own fingers as the once younger master.