CD Review of El Hombre by Pat Martino

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El Hombre
starstarstarstarstar Label: Prestige
Released: 2007
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Dig it. Pat Martino was a mere 22 years old when he stepped out of the backing musician’s shadows to become a full-time front man with El Hombre. Not only that, but the guy had recently recovered from a brain aneurysm that had also left him with temporary amnesia. He recovered, but also had to relearn his guitar, at first not even caring a bit about music. But the near-tragic experience gave him a fresh take on the instrument and his style, and he most assuredly commands the six string on this album.

Opening with the juicy “Waltz for Geri,” Martino takes his redefined Wes Montgomery style and grooves incessantly with tasty licks all over the fretboard as organist Trudy Pitts tears out of the mix and gives his keys a righteous workover. Say what you will about what George Benson was doing around this same time and how he incorporated a bit of Montogomery into his style as well. As good as a lot of that stuff is, Martino’s phrasing has the edge here.

This especially rings true on “Once I Loved,” a bossa nova groove from the Gilbert-Jobim-De Moraes school of cool. Martino’s punctuated chording at the beginning casually slides into fluid, smooth melodic soloing, and is certainly a highlight of El Hombre. Near the middle of the tune, when Martino shoots off rapid fire chords effortlessly, the song takes on a whole new dimension and proves what a great re-interpreter the man was. But then, that’s always one of those good qualities to have when you’re in the jazz biz. No one wants to be stuck in that whole “cocktail” hell.

Then there’s the title track, which features some fantastic guitar interplay with flautist Danny Turner. This is a fantastic tune through and through, and quite possibly the centerpiece of the album. You could hear other people, like Frank Zappa ,employing similar grooves in their songs only a couple years later. Again, Martino’s guitar runs here are nothing short of amazing, especially for some dude who had to relearn the whole damn process. Listening to this track alone, you’d figure the guy couldn’t have done it more perfectly.

It’s interesting to note how the backing band here at times sounds akin to the great M.G.'s, of “Booker T. & the” fame. Trudy Pitts grooves like hell on the organ while drummer Mitch Fine and percussionists Abdu Johnson and Vance Anderson keep the bottom locked down, doing just what they need to do. They cook like kings without messing about and screwing up the mix, allowing Martino and Pitts to work off each other. Just listen to Martino's licks on “Cisco,” and the way Pitts keeps them coming along with his supportive chord stabs.

Then there’s “One for Rose,” which lets Danny Turner go nuts on his flute. Look, man. Ian Anderson just never got it right, OK? Jethro Tull may have had some tasty tunes, but if you want rockin’ flute, call on Mr. Turner. And after you do that, settle on down for the casual stroll of “A Blues for Mickey-O,” a tune Martino composed for his father. Listen to how those notes just explode from the guitar, yet never get too cluttered or busy. Here, Martino lays down the blues like George Benson could never be bothered to. If nothing else on this album makes you feel like the world is all right, then this track is guaranteed to.

El Hombre closes with the swift and happening “Just Friends,” which features more of the same great interplay we’ve heard throughout the previous six tracks. This new Rudy Van Gelder remastered edition for Prestige also includes the bonus track “Song for My Mother,” which is languid and meditative, finding Martino at his most relaxed. It’s a most welcome addition to an already flawless album. So suffice it to say if you like fantastic guitar playing with a groove you can bob your head or dance to, but aren’t really sure about the whole “jazz” tag, then definitely give this album a purchase. It’ll out-cool most of what’s already sitting on your shelf, guaranteed.

~Jason Thompson