Not so long ago, the bass was largely considered vital yet low-profile. The bassist drives the beat, working with the drummer to create a particular groove and tempo. Yet no one dreamed that the bass could function as a lead instrument, the bassist playing solos that matched a guitar virtuoso.
Then came Jaco Pastorius.
Pastorius's unique style, combining harmonics, speed, and a “singing” sound that resembled multiple instruments playing simultaneously, caught the attention of major jazz artists in the early 1970s. Playing in various jazz and R&B bands, he eventually collaborated with Pat Matheny, which led to a contract with CBS records.
That contract paved the way for Pastorius's still remarkable 1976 self-titled debut. His “backing band” contained an impressive roster of jazz talent: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, and David Sanborn, among others. Even Sam and Dave reunited to cut the funky track “Come On, Come Over,” which also showcased Pastorius's R&B roots.
From one track to the next, Pastorius demonstrates his incredible virtuosity and ability to play virtually any genre. “Kuru/Speak Like A Child,” a journey into hard-bop, pits him against Hancock, and the result is an amazing (and speed-defying) duet of piano and bass. “Portrait of Tracy,” one of the best-known cuts off the album, is a delicate ballad highlighting his beautifully intricate bass lines. The previously mentioned track “Come On, Come Over” shows Pastorius at his most playful, his infectious groove perfectly complimenting Sam & Dave's classic soul vocals.
Like fusion? Pastorius deftly mixes Caribbean and jazz sounds on “Opus Pocus,” with bass and steel drums improvising parallel solos. “6/4 Jam” (a bonus track on the 2000 album reissue) recalls the Weather Report in its tight rhythms and R&B/jazz mix. The Weather Report influence is hardly a surprise — Josef Zawinul, founding member of the group, later became Pastorius's mentor. Pastorius played on several Weather Report albums, including the group's famous Heavy Weather (which featured the classic track “Birdland”). “Okonkole y Trompa” has Pastorius playing furiously over African rhythms, showing his wide range and knowledge of world music.
One standout track, “Donna Lee,” uses a simple arrangement and Latin rhythms to properly showcase Pastorius's astounding speed and musicality. His bass solos simply sound like no other, serving as the driving force for the entire song. All in all, the jazz community hailed Jaco Pastorius as groundbreaking for the bass and jazz in general. Ultimately the album earned two Grammy nominations and much critical acclaim.
While the album encapsulates Pastorius's genius and innovation, it is also bittersweet. Gradually succumbing to drugs, mental problems, and erratic behavior, he essentially blacklisted himself from the music world. Despite his illness, he managed to record a few solo albums, including 1981's Word of Mouth and Invitation, a live album. Tragically, he died in 1987 at age 35, in relative obscurity. However, his influence is present in such artists as Rush’s Geddy Lee and Level 42’s Mark King, among many others.
If you are an aspiring or advance bassist, or simply love the instrument, Jaco Pastorius is an essential addition to your collection. Its timeless quality continues to astound, even 32 years later. Sit back, listen to this virtuoso, and learn from a master.
To learn more about Pastorius and his craft, visit his official web site, view a YouTube video of him performing “Portrait of Tracy,” and watch a YouTube clip of Pastorius performing “Birdland” with Weather Report.