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John Yohe


The self-titled solo album Jaco Pastorius (1976) begins with the jazz standard "Donna Lee" by John Coltrane, maybe about the hardest jazz standard melody to master on saxophone or trumpet, but here comes Jaco playing it on the electric bass! I hadn't thought what he was doing, the speed and amount of notes, was possible on bass. If there's even a bass solo, ever, in jazz or rock, usually it happens in a slow section, and/or the bass solo causes the song to slow down--a pet peeve of mine. But we're not even talking a solo here, though that happens too--this is the bass playing the melody. This is Jaco playing the whole damn song, because yes, he re-visions it as just him and one latin american percussion player.

Jaws collectively dropped when that album came out. No one in the jazz or rock worlds had ever heard anything like it before. There hadn't been anything like it before. Jaco's reputation had already been building through his recordings as a back-up player for others, and in the band Weather Report, where his song "Teen Town" hinted at his potential, featuring the bass doing a high-pitched sort-of melody/intro using artificial harmonics. Again, never been done before. For the main section, the bass also plays both what is a melody and a bass line--singable, but also funky, and the keyboards and guitar as way up in the high registers, giving Jaco plenty of space for the solo, which is in the same register as his melody/bass line, so nothing "drops out," the bass solo proceeds naturally from the main section, and back again.

Jaco was also known for his live performances and rock and roll theatrics on stage--in fact, though he played what was called "jazz fusion" back then (the fusion of jazz with other types of music, especially rock) I would argue that Jaco was the first (maybe the last!) jazz fusion musician to really bring that rock n' roll energy to jazz, and by doing so brought some rock fans (like me) over into the fusion world (and eventually into the world of traditional jazz).

The second song on the album, "Come On Come Over," (with the then-famous singing duo of Sam and Dave) features Jaco in a more traditional electric bass role, 70s-style funk like Tower of Power, though again still showcasing his chops, playing the main 'riff' along with the horns--not the melody, but the main musical signature that is kind of sing-able--while the guitar just plays the funky clean 70s porno-esque chicka-chicka chords. In other sections of the song, he hangs on the root note, improvising licks and runs under the vocals, especially during the chorus. Any other bass player might have been as funky, maybe, but the hyperactive fills create an energy, an intensity, that you just don't hear in music anymore--that you didn't hear that much even back then. Some bassists play right on the beat (like Sting, back in The Police days--listen to "Every Breath You Take"--just solid) and some actually play a little behind the beat, for a more laid back feel (like Roger Waters from Pink Floyd) but Jaco always plays ahead of the beat, creating a tension with the other musicians, though not rushing either, making you anticipate the beat--the only other musicians who I've felt have had that kind of feel were thrash and speed metal guitarists, like the guys from Slayer.

Two others songs, though, are what save the album from merely being (a still impressive) bass demo or something--Jaco eases back on the intensity, now with a more traditional jazz band-y feel, in "Continuum," with drums and electric piano--though again, he's playing the melody--slow and melancholy, sliding between notes, sounds close to a cello, and/or the human voice--or, voices, since in both the melody and solo he repeats voicings an octave or two higher or lower, as if two voices were speaking to each other, repeating phrases--one high, one low, both sad-sounding, invoking a man and a woman talking (Or arguing? Crying?) to each other.

Jaco played a fretless bass guitar. According to a Guitar Player Magazine interview, he started on the upright (double) bass like a traditional jazz bass player, but this was in Florida, very humid, hard on wood, and one day his bass just cracked. So he switched to electric, but to keep the sound of a double bass, he pulled the frets out. He wasn't the first to do so, maybe, but he was the first to really use that sound: a bit like a cello, say, with more sustain, and because there are no frets, there can be a slight (intentional or unintentional) atonal dissonance because the fingering might not be exact. This is part of how violin and cellos players get their own sound too.

When electric basses first came on the scene, it was assumed players would play closer to the neck, just like upright players. James Jamerson, who played on a whole lot of the early Motown hits, played this way. Most bass players, now, tend to pluck in the middle area, between the bridge and the bottom of the neck, though two big rock bassists, John Entwistle and Billy Sheehan, both played up there (and if there is any one bass player that was equal to Jaco, it was Billy Sheehan). Almost all jazz bassists (unlike rock bassists) play with their fingers--that is, they 'pluck' the string, usually, with their pointer and middle fingers. Jaco also played/plucked real close to the bridge, for a slightly thinner and more percussive sound. Fretted or fretless, there's also something about how the left hand controls the sound, either by dampening strings, or by putting vibrato on the notes (again, intentionally or unintentionally/subconsciously). With a fretless, you have to have strong hands, to be precise and push down the strings harder. Fingering a fretted bass, you're basically pulling them over the frets, the connection is really between the fret and the bridge, metal to metal. With a fretless, the connection is between your fingers and wood fretboard and the bridge, flesh and wood to metal.

It's my firm belief that, for bass players, amplifiers don't matter that much, that Geddy Lee (from Rush) will sound like Geddy Lee and Steve Harris (from Iron Maiden) will sound like Steve Harris, no matter what. The actual bass might not matter either, though all the bass players I'm mentioning here used (and use) Fender basses for most of their recording (when I finally got a Fender Precision, it felt right, it sounds good)--but, one of Jaco's main heroes and influences was Jimi Hendrix, from whom he took, well, a lot of things, but turning up the preamp on the amplifiers to get volume, first of all (live, when he got a solo, Jaco would turn around and literally turn it up) but this also makes the sound distort, and with distortion comes sustain--the notes sound a little grungy, but they last longer. Also, sometimes, feedback, those high-pitched squeals which Hendrix wove into music. So too Jaco.

"Portrait of Tracy" is the one song of Jaco's that's become a minor standard, not necessarily for bass, but other instruments--I've heard it played on piano to beautiful effect. Guess what? Yes, another thing that no one had done before on the bass. Again, here, it's solo bass, with the majority of the notes being harmonics--meaning there's a limit to the range and amount of notes available--yet, using all four strings, he sounds like two instruments at points, with some '"regular" plucked notes for counterpoint--very Bach, actually. It's a major feat just technically to know all the harmonics and how they go together--which chords you can make with them--but the actual song is gorgeous because, I think, odd, with odd phrasing, an odd melody. And he also not only plays a harmony and bass line, but does a little improvising as well, showing us how to create music--create magic--within limitations. Or, through limitations. That is, maybe limitations are what allow us to create. So too with his playing in general. Since Jaco's heyday, the trend in electric basses has been to add strings, five-string and six-strings, as if adding strings could make you a better player. Jaco, to me, shows that you don't need more strings, but rather, more time practicing and playing.

Much as I love Jaco's first album, much as it changed me as a musician--and a person somehow maybe--my favorite playing of his was in the backing up of others. If there was a jazz (fusion) artist who matched Jaco for chops and rock and roll intensity, for fire, it was Al DiMeola. His first few albums combined jazz, classical, rock, and especially flamenco, into a passionate frenzy, though too he could tone things down and play some for solo guitar by Bach, or a soft guitar and piano duets. His album Land of the Midnight Sun starts fast with "The Wizard," and though Wikipedia lists Anthony Jackson as the bass player (he played on many of DiMeola's later records and is a great bass player in his own right) I swear it's Jaco. He plays the first notes, setting the tone and intensity for that song and the rest of the album. Casino is basically what would later be called "nuevo-flamenco", or more accurately, "latin-flamenco-rock" and it makes you either want to dance, or go run somewhere really fast. This is the song I'd want to play on the last mile of a marathon to pump me up. All kinds of energy, all kinds of fire, DiMeola was another musician who played ahead of the beat, both fast and driving and lots of notes, while the percussionists keep things steady. A nice tension.

Weirdly and surprisingly, Jaco also played bass on a couple of Joni Mitchell albums, later in her career, past the folk and pop high points, when she was experimenting with jazz. His best stuff with her is on the album Hejira, especially "Coyote" where, again, the drums (and guitars) are fairly solid under the vocal, but Jaco's bass line pushes the song, drives the song, just like the speaker in the song seems to feels driven to keep moving, keep traveling. Here too you can hear Jaco throwing in some harmonics--unusual with a full band. Usually if a bass player goes for high notes, the bottom drops out, noticeably, but he keeps a nice balance and the harmonics help create weirder chords with the guitars--some more subtle tension that again matches the tension of the narrator and her relationship with the man she's describing.

The other noteworthy song on Hejira, and the best, is "Furry Sings The Blues," about Mitchell visiting the old Beale Street neighborhood, where Memphis jazz had its heyday, and meeting an aging (and bitter) musician who was part of that scene. Jaco is tasteful here, does not overplay at all--keeping low and fairly basic during the verses--keeping the emphasis on the great lyrics--though at the chorus he throws in a nice, odd, little high repeated phrase, the fretless sound very noticeable, like melancholy or mournful little bird call, or the ghost-echo of a Memphis blues horn.

I like Jaco's work with Mitchell because it's a great example of a great singer, great songwriter especially, supported by a great band--Mitchell knew how good Jaco was, and knew how use him--she and the other guitar player rarely do anything but strum rhythm, as least on the songs with the band, leaving Jaco plenty of room to do his thing. And he responds. I don't think any singers (or record producers, or record labels) would really let a bass player loose like that anymore--not that they ever did, mostly, except maybe John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin. Pop music is so sterile nowadays, formulaic, the first thing producers seem to want to ensure is that the bass does nothing but support, that it should never even be noticeable.

I also see the potential, here, for Jaco to have crossed over into the rock world, where he would have maybe gotten greater recognition, or at least more money. All the other music Jaco played was more along the lines of music for musicians. Regular folks didn't know who he was. With both Mitchell and DiMeola, you can hear just what an overall great bass player Jaco was. If he had only been known for his amazing solo stuff that would have been a lot, but he was a good team player too, supporting the guitar and vocals and songwriting, showing just how important a good bass player--I mean really good--can be in a band setting, whereas, generally, both listeners' and musicians' expectations for bass players--if they think of them at all--are set pretty low, either thump-thump-thumping on the root note, or just doubling whatever the guitar player plays.

Unfortunately--and I feel I have to say inevitably--Jaco died at the age of only 35, in 1987. His creative genius was caused and fueled and destroyed by a life of drugs and alcohol and mental illness. Diagnosed with what at the time was called manic-depression (the title of a song by his hero, Jimi Hendrix, who may also have suffered from it) but is now called bi-polar disorder, according to the woefully short and incomplete biography by Bill Milkowski, Jaco would have long strange periods of high activity, doing things like maybe supposedly swimming from Manhattan out to the Statue of Liberty and back. And down sides like falling asleep on a bench in Central Park with his bass next to him, which was stolen. (Robert Trujillo, the bassist for Metallica, which shows you Jaco's extensive influence, bought it at an auction and gave it back to Jaco's family). The drugs and alcohol were probably a way to self-medicate the mental problems, though of course they ended up only aggravating them, and the music scene being what it is (or was), drug use was common and accepted, up until the point a musician couldn't perform, which happened: the calls for gigs mostly stopped. He was checked into mental hospitals in New York at times, but from what I had thought, from reading about him, was that he was spiraling so far down I didn't think anyone could have saved him, though the recent documentary, Jaco (produced by Trujillo), has an interview with his doctor at the time, who claims that the medication he was on was working, that Jaco was getting better.

Jaco died from a beating he received by a club bouncer.

There are posthumous Jaco albums, recorded from live performances in clubs in New York, in his later days--the sound quality is sometimes not-so great, though the playing is nice and raw, usually with just a guitarist and drummer, giving Jaco space to both groove and solo, and turn up loud. The best sample would be the aptly-named Punk Jazz where the band takes time to just jam, lengthening out sections for extended solos. Kind of sloppy sometimes but that's what live performance are all about, the highlight being an instrumental version of The Beatles' "Dear Prudence."

He did put out a second album, in which you can see the potential of where he might have gone. The amazing bass chops are still on display, like in "Chromatic Fantasy" though less so--he seemed to be wanting to go beyond just being a virtuoso, exploring composing and arranging, for bigger band-type songs, horns especially--and for a wider variety of instruments for his melodies. The best on the album though is the instrumental version of The Beatles' "Blackbird," the melody played by harmonica, though Jaco's bass line emulates McCartney's original acoustic guitar part, using open strings and chords. This version is a little more intense, a little more chaotic, a little more driving than McCartney's version, but still sad. A beautiful sad mess. And that was Jaco.

The film Jaco can be ordered (DVD, Blue-Ray and download) here.

The official Jaco Pastorius website is here.

©2016 by John Yohe

John Yohe lives in Portland, Oregon. He has been a firefighter, oiler, runner, and musician, as well as writing teacher. For a complete list of his publications please visit his website.

Read John Yohe's other essays in Slow Trains here:

Riding Dragons

Slayer!: An Essay in Thirteen Parts

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