Jaco Pastorius. The bass player's 'bass player'.
Composer, producer and bass player extraordinaire, John Francis Anthony Pastorius III; better known as Jaco Pastorius, was a force of nature. The man’s playing is a hurricane of deep bass grooves and improvisation.
Charismatic, super-fit, he possessed an assertive streak that often merged into a contained aggression on stage. As it is fellow Floridian, death metal guitar virtuoso Trey Azagthoth (Morbid Angel), his playing and performing style is almost inimitable.
A former altar boy at St. Clement's Catholic School, Pastorius is best known for his performances played on the iconic 1962 Fender Jazz Bass that he christened ‘Bass of Doom’.
Absurd as it may sound, the genius of Pastorius was never fully realised. His tragic death on September 21, 1987 (aged 35), is a reminder that his achievements were accomplished in a relatively short period of time, one can only ponder where his creative muse may have led if he had survived the violent confrontation at the Midnight Bottle Club.
Pastorius could certainly play the bass guitar… but why is he so iconic?
Prior to 1970, most jazz bassists performed on the upright or double bass, bassists stayed in the background. Pastorius performed on the electric fretless bass and could move around the stage. His stunning interpretation and improvisation was thus complimented by his acrobatic stage presence.
Yes, Pastorius revolutionised the electric bass. Not just in jazz, but in any genre that required the sonic tones the bass guitar brings. This is why he is so revered, loved, appreciated and will forever be known as the great Jaco!
Pastorius was born December 1, 1951 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. His father, Jack Pastorius was a jazz drummer who spent most of his time away from the family on the road as a musician.
At 8 years of age the family moved Florida and it was here the you Pastorius spent much of his time at the beach, enjoying nature and generally hamming it up. He was also a gifted athlete, excelling at baseball, basketball and American football.
His initiation to music was via the drums. Sustaining an injury as a teen he switched to the bass guitar. Although he is credited on numerous records prior to his introduction to the great jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, it was through his connection to Methany he would record his first credited album in 1974, Jaco.
Pastorius is a famed collaborator who worked with a diverse array of artists. The most prominent names include Weather Report,Joni Mitchell, Al Di Meola, Jimmy Cliff, Herbie Hancock and the previously mentioned Pat Metheny.
Let’s explore the solo work credited to Pastorius. For me, Jaco Pastoriusis his masterwork; featuring a portrait in black and white of his steady gaze, his eyes hint at the white-knuckle tension in his playing. The album contains his signature piece; the solo composition, “Portrait of Tracey”.
“Portrait of Tracy” has been the inspiration for untold hands to pick up the bass and attempt to replicate the cut’s latticework of notes. As a bass player myself, I recall spending hours attempting to master the harmonics and web like stance the fretting hand needs to even come close to mimicking the position required to re-create the mastery of the songs note placement.
In 1981 Pastorius released Word of Mouth. It’s an interesting solo release from the perspective that he was already a member of the band Weather Report. So abundant was his creative muse, he was able to release another album of solo material during this era.
Word of Mouth is an important milestone as it showcased his ability to compose and arrange for a larger band. The bass playing is not as forthright, however it is no less present or potent. The band that recorded Word of Mouthis a who’s who of jazz form the era; Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Peter Erskine, Jack DeJohnette, Michael Brecker, Don Alias and Toots Thielemans.
The third and final solo album released during Pastorius lifetime is called Invitation(’83). This is a live album recorded during a tour of Japan. The musicians were recast from Word of Mouthso it’s an album that focuses on the band as a unit rather than on Pastorius as a soloist. The majority of the album tracks are covers or arrangements by other composers.
Pastorius recorded five studio albums with the Jazz fusion titans Weather Report, and a live album which was released in 1979. There were a few live recordings released posthumously but we will stick to the albums that were released during Pastorius’s lifetime.
The Weather Reportalbums that Pastorius appeared on are as follow: Black Market(’76) Heavy Weather (’77), Mr. Gone(’78), 8:30- live (’79), Night Passage(’80) and finally in 1982 on the self-titled album.
Heavy Weather, is the most commercial successful release from Weather Report. It is an album that has its critics as the Rolling Stone is quoted as reporting at the time that it “lost a lot of the space, melodies and airy feel that marked them out from other jazz rock bands”. Pastorius is credited with the song writing on two tracks, "Teen Town" and "Havona".
Mr. Gonefeatures one of Pastorius’s most iconic performances. The albums sixth track, “Punk Jazz”, would almost go on to be credited with creating a genre, at least by name alone. It is therefore interesting that Mr. Goneas an album is not viewed by critics to be one of the more successful Weather Report albums due to a perception it is an album produced with a broader audience in mind.
The following up to Mr. Gone, Night Passageis return to the rawer sounds of early Weather Report albums. Pastorius received song writing credit for “Three Views of a Secret” on the album, and I believe I am correct in saying that it is the final studio album song writing credit that he would receive. Pastorius is not credited with any song writing on the final album of his career in Weather Report; that is the self-titled album.
Observers of his career will have noted is that Pastorius played on an enormous volume of recordings as a session player or side-man. Far too-many to mention. His most prominent credit as a sideman is with the legendary Joni Mitchell. He appeared on the following studio albums with Mitchell: Hejira (’76), Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (’77), Mingus(’79) and the 1980 live recording Shadows and Light.
In December of 1987 Mitchell penned a very thoughtful article for Musician magazine. Her opening paragraph reads as follows:
“What can I say about Jaco? When I first met him, he was extremely present tense and, I would have to say for lack of a better term, extremely sage. He was so accepting of everything going on around him; at the same time, he was arrogant and challenging: "I'm the baddest!" He was so alert, so involved in the moment. When people are in that state they're generally fun to be with. He was very alive.”
Pat Methany is one of the world’s foremost contemporary jazz, Latin jazz, and jazz fusion guitarists. Pastorius appears on his debut album, Bright Sized Lifefrom 1976, and the title track was honoured through its conclusion on the album: Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthologycompilation, which was released in 2011.
Apparently Pastorius had a wicked sense of humour. If you can find the collaboration between him and Jimmy Cliff, it’s a lot of fun. Its an upbeat number that is unashamedly 80’s in sound, called "Brown Eyes”, the cut also features Bayyanand La Toya Jackson. "Brown Eyes” is available on Jimmy Cliff’s 1985 album; Cliff Hanger.