Pat Martino is a well-respected guitarist who famously overcame an aneurysm, and had to learn to play his instrument all over again. He is a humble man, but his quiet persona - he looks like one of those wiry, in disgustingly-good-nick for their age, American college professors - gives way once he starts playing to a forceful and untricksy approach to the guitar. It's direct, unadorned, and thoughtful without being too serious.
So it gives me no pleasure to say that there was no great reason to have gone to see him at Ronnie Scott's, despite its being his first appearance in Frith Street. No reason, that is, unless you are new to the contemporary, gutsy and angular take on bop that has flourished for the last 20 years, and which, quite frankly, anyone interested in jazz would have to wear industrial strength earplugs to miss, given that it still is the dominant force in the current jazz mainstream.
Martino was surrounded by four young musicians, all clad, like him, in black (he was marked out by an ethnic waistcoat) who were probably top of their classes at music school. All had impeccable techniques, the pianist well-versed in his McCoy Tyner, the tenor saxophonist filtering Coltrane through Brecker, as is the fashion, and a superbly responsive double bass and drum duo at the back of the stage who, with their consistent anticipation of each other, demonstrated that the backbone of a successful rhythm section is not drums or bass but both.
But mastering the textbook is not enough, and it came as a shock to someone such as your critic, who has often chided British musicians for lacking the muscularity of the Americans, to hear what dull results that brawn produces when it is not married to at least some modicum of inventiveness.
At first the fiery polyrhythms of the drummer, underneath a couple of opening tunes characterised by the kind of forgettable but catchy obtuseness that the late Don Grolnick excelled at, made one think approvingly of Art Blakey. But as the set wore on, and when even in Wayne Shorter's lilting "Night Dreamer" the dynamics varied, if at all, between forte and mezzo-forte, one wondered: where is the shading? Does this train have more than one speed? Has the drummer heard of brushes? All the learning of Martino's young companions has not yet taught them how to use subtlety to make their ideas soar beyond pastiche and become originals. In short, they are unformed. And from that lack of form, Martino could not escape. What was surprising was that he didn't seem to mind.
For a master of the palette, check out the incomparable, almost unbearable, soprano of Jimmy Scott from tonight at Ronnie's. The pace will be slower, but he swims in oceans of emotion compared to the puddles Martino's men are still splashing around in.