It’s about nine miles as the seagull flies between the Gateway Playhouse in Somers Point and the one-time epicenter for South Jersey jazz, Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City.
It’s also a pretty good thing that the stage at the newly reopened Gateway faces 220 seats and doesn’t offer the performers a view of the great outdoors. If it did, jazz guitarist Pat Martino would probably have his attention distracted.
Martino, the world-class, Philadelphia-born jazz guitarist, is the headliner during the OceanFirst Bank Jazz @ The Point series, which runs Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 12 to 15, at several locations in Somers Point.
He’ll perform with his regular trio plus two added horn players — sax and trumpet — during a show that will offer the audience a taste of Martino’s new album “Formidable,” which drops on Oct. 20, and is his first studio album in years where he’s doubling as a bandleader and a player.
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But Martino admits he’ll probably flash back a little during the show to the early 1960s, when he was just getting his feet wet as a professional musician and was working summers in the house band at the gone-but-never-forgotten Club Harlem in Atlantic City.
“It was a wonderful time there back in the early ’60s,” Martino remembers during a recent recent phone call from his Philadelphia home. “You not only had the Club Harlem, you had the Le Bistro, you had Grace’s (Little Belmont) across from Club Harlem, and the Wonder Gardens was right down the street. That’s where we’d go to hear Cannonball (Adderly) and Mongo Santamaria.”
For young musicians and singers trying to make a career out of the music business, Kentucky Avenue’s jazz joints were their classrooms. Martino remembers hearing a young and unknown jazz guitarist and singer who grew up to become George Benson. He, too, was a summertime regular at the Wonder Gardens.
Martino recalls the days when he was a sideman in Willis Jackson’s band, back when the legendary drummer Chris Columbo kept the beat going and kids struggling to make it as singers and dancers were the dance line at the Harlem. Although he enjoys speaking about the past, Martino, 73, has his feet and his music firmly planted in the present. The reason he’s added two horns to his weekend gig is because he wants the audience to sample the music on his new album.
Martino admits he was lucky that the members of his trio, plus the horn players he worked with on the album, were available to play his Jazz @ The Point gig. Their show takes place 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, at the Gateway Playhouse in Somers Point.
“I recorded (the album) with this particular quintet, so we’ll be performing a lot of the music that was originally recorded for the new album,” he explains.
As far as the rest of the program beyond the new tunes, Martino says he really doesn’t have a clue what else they’ll play. They’ll probably be going over the set list as he and his musicians are walking on stage.
“Expect a lot of incredible interplay between us because we love to interact together as players, and there are some ferocious moments that are definitely going to take place,” he says. “But it’s impossible to give you a set list. Because until the very last moment, no one knows what we’re going to do. We select on the basis of how we feel at that time.”
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In addition to being a gifted performer, Martino has gained a reputation over the years as a man who’s developed a unique way of teaching the guitar and jazz. Jazz and mathematics have similar properties, he says, so he teaches guitar almost as if it’s a math problem.
“You’d be surprised at how effective it is to display something that the student already knows well and to redefine what they’re constantly aware of,” he says. “For instance, on their kitchen clock there’s a circle with 12 numbers on it. It’s reasonable to take those numbers and turn them into melodies, into 12 notes. And when you do that, you’re looking at a circular chromatic scale. And within that appearance, suddenly the music is something that (the) student can see again and again for many years. They’ve grown up with it in their presence. So it’s redefining what they’re already familiar with.”
“Jazz is one of the most profound facets of this particular form of art because of how close it is to everyday living,” he adds. “That’s what jazz really is. It’s the ability to improvise under the freest of conditions and to really admire and respect all of your surroundings and how they can be used in a unified way. That’s what jazz really turns into.”