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Jaco Pastorius Transformed the Bass Forever in His 1976 Solo Debut

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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. 

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Excellent Article…

    However, his influence is present in such artists as Rush’s Geddy Lee and Level 42’s Mark King, among many others.

    Yea, but, you forgot to mention his brilliant student Michael Manring. If you wanna hear where Jaco might have went, listen to Mr. Manring. He keeps Jaco’s spirit alive by pushing the boundaries with his impeccable bass playing. He even helped design the “Hyper Bass” with Zon Guitars. It is the first of its kind…

  • http://somethingelsemusic.blogspot.com/ Pico

    While Jaco was ultimately more influential, Stanley Clarke preceded him in putting forth the idea of the electric bass as a lead instrument by a few years. And Clarke was blindingly fast (still is). Nonetheless, good job on a well-written article; Pastorius’ first album blew everyone away.

  • http://www.hollywoodripper.com Cindy Collins Smith

    #2 – Correct re: Stanley Clarke. He was the “big thing” right before Jaco. But then came Jaco.

    I’m a little surprised that this article doesn’t mention what Jaco did with Weather Report and Joni Mitchell.

    No matter, yeah, Jaco was a groundbreaking bassist. There’s more to musicianship than raw speed (and Jaco had that, but he had so much more!).

    In 1976, I saw a Weather Report / Al DiMeola double bill at the University of North Texas (huge jazz school). DiMeola was 22 and played just a whole flurry of super-fast notes (he developed taste later in that trio with John McLaughlin and Paco DiLucia).

    But then came Weather Report. Man! Multiple musical geniuses in the same band. Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, and that South American percussionist whose name I can’t recall right now.

    Man, that was amazing. And Jaco was a huge part of that mix.

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    Thanks for your comments, everyone–I’ll definitely check out Manring, and yes, Stanley Clarke was (is) indeed a wonderful bassist, although I felt Jaco took the bass to another level, even beyond Clarke. And yes, Jaco did great work with Joni Mitchell, although that would require a separate column. :) Thanks for pointing that out, though, Cindy.

    Wow, Cindy, you saw a Weather Report/Al DiMeola double bill? What a show that must have been! Thanks for sharing such a great memory.

  • http://www.hollywoodripper.com/ Cindy Collins Smith

    Hi Kit, Yes. I got to see Weather Report / Al DiMeola. It was amazing. I’m realizing now it was probably spring 1977 (1976/77 school year).

    I was first told about Jaco by one of the top bass players at North Texas – who knew Jaco in Florida. It must have been 1975 or early 1976. I was a Stanley Clarke fan, and that bass player told me that Jaco was going to blow everybody away. So I was on the lookout for Jaco before he became nationally/internationally known. Then I turned my brother on to him.

    My brother used to tape concerts (boots), and he had a lot of live Jaco. We saw Jaco together with the big band at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

    One big triumph in all this is that my brother’s 15 year old son (an aspiring bassist) has continued the tradition. I’d love to say that we passed it on to the next generation, but I think Danny discovered Jaco on his own. I got a big smile on my face when he told me who his favorite bass player was. :-)

  • http://www.hollywoodripper.com/ Cindy Collins Smith

    BTW, Kit, the work he did with Joni Mitchell – I mean, WOW!!! He made that bass sing. It was the perfect counterpoint to Joni’s voice.

  • http://www.jacofania.com JAcoFannia

    JAco Bireli????

    The Best Jaco!!!

    Ciao
    Jacofania

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    re: Joni Mitchell….yeah, i think that Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is required Jaco listening.

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom Johnson

    For me, it’s all about The Birthday Concert, which seems to be criminally overlooked. “Soul intro/The Chicken” is unstoppable – it appeared elsewhere but nowhere near as driving as it is here. Everything Jaco was capable of was summed up in this one near-perfect concert recording. Invitation and Twins would be its equals were it not for the addition of Toots Thieleman’s out of place (IMO) harmonica.

    And, yes, Michael Manring is absolutely incredible. Check out Soliloquy and his duo with acoustic guitarist David Cullen, Equilbre.