When recounting the events of a life story so tragic, and not for the first time, one can only feel still further saddened at the loss of a soul so bright and brilliant as that of Jaco Pastorius. Never had someone possessed so much potential and squandered so much of it on drink and drugs and most tragically of all, to a mental condition that he was powerless to overcome. However, the beginnings of his rise to becoming (in his own words) "the world's greatest bass player" was a trajectory created by a god-given gift and years of dedication to his chosen instrument. Just as we look back on the likes of Jimi Hendrix - an equally pioneering voice of the guitar, so Jaco Pastorius reinvented the bass. The 'Hendrix of the bass', the oft-muted phrase still rings true today - his later notoriety based on his own equivalent of throwing lighter fluid on his career and setting fire to it.
The shockwaves caused by his reinvention of the bass guitar has enslaved as many bassists as it freed, such is the magnetism of his sound. The singing, sliding, rubbery, vibrato laden punch of Jaco's fretless '62 Fender jazz is still being felt today through bassists who were either taught by him or who've adopted a similar throaty timbre as 'their' sound. His replacement after he left fusion super group Weather Report, Victor Bailey, despite not actually using a fretless, has a very similar sound. As does one-time right hand man of Miles Davis, bassist and producer Marcus Miller whenever he goes near a fretless. In fact, every bassist who's electrically inclined has in some way had to acknowledge Jaco's influence either on themselves or on the instrument as a whole, and for that matter music as a whole.
With the reissue of his eponymous first album on Epic, recorded in 1976, now remixed from the original analogue master tapes, and in the 14th year after Jaco's untimely demise, the time is ripe for a reappraisal of his influence and the eclectic and masterful body of work he left behind. As with all great musicians, Jaco worked with a diverse range of artists, from vocalists Flora Purim and Joni Mitchell to guitarists Pat Metheny, Mike Stern and John Scofield, fusion virtuosos Weather Report, saxophonists David Sanborn, Michael Brecker and Bob Mintzer amongst many, many others - leaving behind many varied and enthralling performances in as many styles as there are artists. In the last year, I've been lucky enough to talk to a few of the people who had direct contact with Jaco at various stages in his life and their reactions and memories are further testimony to this beacon of musical inspiration.
Guitarist John Scofield was a contemporary of Jaco's and recalled the sheer self-confidence that made Jaco such an imposing figure, even before he played the bass! "I was up in Boston living up there and Pat Metheny came up there and we became friends. And Pat Metheny told me, he said, 'you know there's this guy from Florida who I think he is like the greatest musician I ever met!' Pat was like really amazed by this guy. He said 'problem is, he's really out there! (Laughs) He'll like tell you he's the greatest musician you ever met!' Because all the other really great musicians we had met were really humble and were these kind of guru type guys and Jaco was different. Then Pat recently afterwards got him to play on his record, then I heard the record, I said 'you're right he is really, really good.' And then Jaco's record came out, and that blew my mind! Because I said here is somebody who has done what I wanted to do. I mean this guy on one track, he was playing with Herbie and playing just unbelievable. He was playing the bass the way I wished I could play the guitar. Then he had Sam and Dave on another track and I said 'Holy shit' because I had been a big soul music fan too at that time. Then he played Donna Lee and it was just like it was all there. And this guy was literally coming out of the blue and he changed music at that time. And then I met the man because then I got the gig with Billy Cobham's band and he joined Weather Report and we started to do all these gigs opposite each other. Then I got to know him a little bit and yeah, it was true, here was this guy who came up and said you know 'I am the greatest bass player in the world. I know you been playing with some of those other guys but man, I'm the man!' I was like 'who is this guy?' And then it really intimidated me because he was the man. He was completely the man! And he was this insane guy! (Laughs) He just played it all man, he had it all and he burned up and he's gone."
He was one of the brightest flashes in the history of modern music, I add. "Yeah, that I ever saw, like that (snaps his fingers) and it was over", Scofield confirms. "He got into getting high. When I first met him he didn't get high on anything. He was like 'I don't do that stuff, that's for assholes!' Then I met him, like a year later and he was like 'hey man, I've got me some incredible cocaine, check this out!' Just completely gone, he was completely out of it. But you know, the years that he was with Weather Report and when his album came out, there was nothing like it. It was just completely unbelievable, and his compositions the whole deal, he was the greatest ever, you know?" There are plenty of imitators and great bassists around today though. "But there's nobody like Jaco. There was so much soul in that stuff and it was all the beautiful harmonics stuff too. It was Latin music, it was funk he played with Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders, which I was real into them, because he was like the white James Brown, but it was from this really slimy, Southern thing, it was so funky and then Jaco was in on that! Because he lived in Florida which was the South and the real R&B stuff was down there in the Deep South. And there was still the Criterion Studios down there where they made a lot of really heavy R&B stuff so his R&B stuff was just incredible. And all the chords that everybody heard like Joe Zawinul and Herbie and those guys I think they couldn't believe it. I was lucky to be there."
Indeed, Jaco had started his musical career with the sincerest intentions, a clear head and the dedication and ability in every area he explored to back up any of his ideas, no matter how ambitious. "Bass playing then was just like a hobby to me back in high school, but I've always been the sort of cat that whatever I wanted to do something, no matter what it was, I always tried to do it good. So like I was always good at baseball and football when I was a kid; just the way I was, I just wanted to get in there and do something, no matter where it was, I just wanted to do it good. So it was the same thing with music; when I was learning, it really didn't matter, it was just something I was doing."
At the time of recording his first, now legendary album, saxophonist Michael Brecker, the foremost voice of the tenor sax working today, played on the sessions at producer (and drummer for Blood, Sweat and Tears, who Jaco had played with briefly) Bobby Colomby's house. When I spoke to him he recalled when he first met him at the recording sessions: "I first met him on that session. And I had heard about him, but that I believe was the first time I met him, that was at Bobby Colomby's house, he was the producer and he had a studio in his house. It was in up state New York so I went up there and I liked him. Then he played me the recording of 'Donna Lee' and I completely flipped…I had never…it was not just that he was playing it on the bass but it was just so great. And you know, he set a new standard and continued to, and he was probably the most powerful musical presence I have ever been around. And that can't be overstated and I used to say it then, so I'm not saying it in retrospect, he was a powerful presence - it's sad that he was ill. I really cherish the times I spent with him." They met again on Joni Mitchell's 'Shadows and Light' tour, in a band featuring himself, Pat Metheny, Don Alias, Lyle Mays and Jaco, then in the early '80s again as part of the band assembled to celebrate Jaco's 30th birthday. Brecker elaborates on that explosive and hugely enjoyable, unique gig: "Oh yeah, that was a good one. That was never meant to be a record. At the time I think it was meant to be a present for his mom - it was some kind of crazy thing. But it was good that it was done - even though it was a big party, but it was recorded well, and was nice because there have been so many Jaco, kind of crappy sounding, awful things from clubs that were never supposed to be released, and his record 'Word of Mouth' was such a classically, incredibly great record." An awesome record by any standards, I concur. "Awesome, awesome album and he was a highly, highly accomplished composer and he was also a very giving human being in spite of some of the demons, he was tremendously generous and caring."
Another hugely influential artist, who was also about to change the face of the guitar as we know it, Pat Metheny - was a close friend of Jaco's during his musically formative, teenage years. Pat recalls those early days: "Well, we were best friends for four or five years when we were both really young before anybody would have known anything about either one of us. I met Jaco when I was seventeen. He would have been about nineteen at the time, he was a couple of years older than me. We very quickly developed a not only strong personal relationship but musical relationship because we had so many things in common in the sense that we were both pissed off (laughs) at the development of our respective instruments in jazz.
"We felt, almost kind of reactionary to the jazz scene at the time, which was ironically what now has become, what they call now 'fusion', which of course now most people include he and I both in that thing! (Laughs.) Which is sort of a weird thing that's more or less just a historical anomaly. Yeah, we were both really interested in harmony, which at that time was not very much of a thing a lot of, cos I'm talking '72, '73, '74 which was sort of when people were really playing mostly one chord kind of vamps, sort of the post Mahavishnu thing. I was personally, as much as I love John McLaughlin, I was like Wynton Marsalis, (laughs) I didn't want to know about fuzz tone and all that. I wanted to play in chords, I wanted the groove to come more from the cymbals rather than the backbeat. And Jaco was doing things way differently in another way, which his whole thing was more of a lighter kind of funk thing you know, as opposed to a rock and roll thing. We had a lot of very strong similarities early on and continued to be very, very close up until the time he joined Weather Report and then his lifestyle went in a different direction. I was always very straight, as was he up until that time, and when he started drinking and stuff he really became a different person and we were less close you know. Although we were always tight, I was one of the few people that I think could really talk to him because I knew him from so many years before he became 'Jaco', you know, and also because we really did have this very special musical relationship. It was a very unique time."
To tell the whole story would take more time and space than we have here, but like others before him, Jaco's time amongst us was running on a meter much quicker and more productive than most, and at the same time fated to end in tragedy. Just as Van Gough never sold a painting until he was dead and buried, so Jaco died a broken individual who slipped through the net, too taciturn and probably too far gone for anyone to catch him before he met his demise at the hands of bouncer outside a nightclub. The fact he wasn't recognised by the guy, the fact he had a death wish, the fact the bouncer exacted such a brutal beating on one so gentle and caring are all things that we cannot change. However, his music lives on and as you sit reading this, somewhere some 15 year-old kid is hearing Jaco for the first time. They'll be thinking 'how the hell am I supposed to compete with that?', yet at the same time be inspired beyond belief that with his or her bare hands they might just change the face of bass playing, the way Jaco did. In an interview in January 1977 with Neil Tesser of 'Downbeat' magazine, Jaco was still lucid and perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, described the vibe of his Florida home, and in many ways himself. "The water of the Caribbean is much different from other oceans. It's a bit calmer down there, we don't get waves in Florida, all that much. Unless there's a hurricane. But when a hurricane comes, look out, it's more ferocious than anywhere else. And a lot of music down there is like that, the pulse is smooth even if the rhythms are angular, and the pulse will take you before you know it. All of sudden, you're swept away."
Text © Mike Flynn