Pat Martino Quartet – Undeniable: Live at Blues Alley ★★★★★

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Pat Martino (g), Eric Alexander (ts), Tony Monaco (org), and Jeff “Tain” Watts (d). Rec. 26-28 June 2009

Fifty years ago, when he was a skinny, hollow-cheeked 17-year-old newcomer in Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson’s Harlem-based combo, Pat Martino was nicknamed “The Kid”. Today he’s an elder statesman with the distinguished grey locks of a fine-art dealer or diplomat, but still very much the kiddy as far as funky, hard-swinging neo-bop guitar is concerned. (It just dawned on me that Jackson’s own nickname must have described how hard that big-toned tenorman and his band were known to swing.) Martino is also a remarkable survivor, still keeping top company after a long life, a busy career and a frightening brush with death from a brain aneurysm, after which he reportedly had to relearn the guitar from scratch.

Recorded live with a brilliant all-star group, this is one of his best recordings for years. Eric Alexander, my favourite straightahead tenorist, makes a fine choice for his group, as does drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, a deep-seated groover for whom the swing is always the thing. Monaco comps urgently and solos with all the laidback heat of the great soul organists, and all are team players, Alexander packing his solos with interesting ideas yet never outmuscling the boss, who leads from the front. Even now, Martino has no rivals for maintaining a soulful and consistently flowing line, fast and furious when he wants to be, rock-steady and repetitive when he hits a particularly meaty phrase and senses the chance to draw some appreciative yells from the crowd. The soulful, boppish originals are all his, and all sound a joy to play. Martino fans considering this purchase should not hesitate.

– Jack Massarik