Saturday night at Chris' Jazz Café, guitarist Pat Martino leaned into his set-opening solo on Wes Montgomery's "Full House" as if he and his quintet had been playing at full rage for two hours already.
Epochal is too small a word. Minute after minute, Martino, 71, explored a universe of expressive treasures, playing loud, taking it down, bringing it back up, with melody, wit, delicacy, precision, and wisdom. Not only is it physically forbidding to play as he does, it also takes a deep soul, years of living, of playing, imagining, understanding. Leaving a packed house with jaws on the table, that opening stroll set an absolutely impossible standard for the evening. You almost could have put on your coat and gone into the night happy.
The occasion was Martino's annual "Thanksgiving Weekend" at Chris', two shows each on Friday and Saturday nights. In past years, he's shown up with a trio, but this year he fronted what he called "the quintet" (earlier in the month, at the Exit 0 Jazz Festival in Cape May, it had been billed as "The Pat Martino Trio with Horns"), and here's hoping this bunch records together soon. They all answered the call of Martino's first solo, maintaining the astonishment through to the last note. Tenor sax man Adam Niewood ransacked the instrument for new ideas. Trumpeter Alex Pope Norris blew with economy and yet flamboyance, especially in quoting other music as he sped along. Playing with a smile, drummer Carmen Intorre was both steady and creative, and the very great Pat Bianchi (also smiling) on Hammond B3 flourished a musical cape around the shoulders of all.
As everyone should know by now, Pat Martino is a cultural patrimony for Philadelphia and for music. He was already a world great by 1980, when a brain aneurysm savaged his memory and forced him to learn guitar all over again. As his blazing work on a triumphant version of "Draw Me Down" displayed, he is as good, no, better, than he ever was, right here and now.
As fine as the quintet was (and I hope is), the acme of the night had to be when Martino, Bianchi, and Intorre did two tunes as a trio. In a mid- and late-20th-century set, Thelonious Monk's " 'Round Midnight" was perhaps inevitable, but Martino, easing into the laid-back spaces, elevated familiar into brand-new. He and Bianchi made the crowd fall in love with this oft-done standard, in unforgettable ways. I heard a young guitarist whisper, "That was amazing. He's the best guitarist I ever saw."
Martino himself was smiling by show's end, as the band sprinted into Sonny Rollins' "Oleo," a crazy, hard-bop standard with blazing trades by Martino, Norris, Niewood, and Bianchi, plus a welcome turn by Intorre. As the first crowd filed out and the next one came in, smiles were everywhere.