It seems that I had only just started to hear about this magnificent bass player doing absolutely incredible things with the instrument, and then he was dead. Jaco Pastorius released his first solo album in 1976, Jaco Pastorius, and was dead by 1987. During those nine years he didn't just redefine the role of the electric bass in popular music, he destroyed it and then rebuilt it from the ground up again until it was unrecognizable.
From his tenure in Weather Report; his collaborations with individuals as diverse as Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, and Jonnie Mitchell; and to his own too-few solo albums he never stopped looking for new ways of expressing himself through his instrument of choice. Until that time no one had thought of the bass as anything more than a means of playing a song's rhythm, and hardly any music was created with it in mind specifically.
Jaco pulled the bass out of the background where it was buried in the mix alongside the kick drum and placed it out front with the guitars, horns, and keyboards. Well you say, so what, look at funk were the bass line was front and centre from its earliest days, pushing the beat and the song ahead of it. True but it never led, Jaco wasn't just out front slapping out the beat for the big boys. In his hands the bass became a melodic instrument playing everything from leads to harmonies for vocals.
I don't know if it's a coincidence, but probably not, that in this the twentieth year anniversary of Jaco Patorius' death, Sony/BMG Legacy has released a two-disc package that traces his whole mercurial career. The Essential Jaco Pastorius being released on the 26th of June contains excerpts from his major collaborations, his years with Weather Report, and his incredible solo career.
From the start of disc one to the end of disc two they lovingly record his progress almost every inch of the way. It still takes my breath away that a young bass player not only would have the audacity and the bravery to release a solo album, but that it would feature his own compositions as well as standards. From the very first cut on his first album, he let the world know what was coming.
"Donna Lee" was an old Charlie Parker be-bop standard that Jaco took on accompanied only by Don Alias on congas. I can imagine old Jazz guys looking at this and thinking to themselves, "Who the hell does this kid think he is?", and then listening and finding out exactly who he was. To hear a song played on solo bass that had previously been played on tenor saxophone is still astonishing today so to have it heard an unheralded kid playing it back in the seventies must have been mind-blowing.
The song that impressed me the most from this album was his solo composition "Portrait Of Tracy," written for his first wife. It's here that he shows the true potential, in my mind, for a bass to be melodic instrument. At times he sounded like a keyboard, with fat, fuzzy notes, and other times he created harmonic chords that resonated with a harp sound reminiscent more of Ireland than Jazz.
As we move down the years with him through the two discs of this collection we hear every single bit of the potential demonstrated on his first album realized and expanded upon in each of collaborations. From playing in the Pat Metheny trio exchanging licks and leads, pummelling out funk lines with Herbie Hancock, laying down ethereal counterpoint to Joni Mitchell's vocals, leading Weather Report into places in Jazz fusion that nobody could have imagined, to heading up his own small orchestra on his penultimate album Word Of Mouth.
Just when you think you can't be amazed anymore, he pushes the envelope a little further. Dropping an homage to Jimi Hendrix into the middle of a song by riffing on the lead from "Third Stone From The Sun", complete with feedback and distortion, and not taking anything away from the song or sounding like he's showing off. The seamless blending of songs and styles into one harmonious moment is indicative of a mind and a talent that can recognise potential and act upon it simultaneously.
By the end of his career Jaco Pastorius's feel and instinct for the music was to the point where he was capable of doing things other musicians wouldn't even dream of trying. Playing an instrument normally associated with keeping the rhythm and nothing else, he was able to innovate and accomplish more in nine years of recordings then many so called lead players did in careers three times as long.
In this era of mega basses that can break a sternum at twenty paces it seems like nobody remembers that a bass can be subtle instrument; an instrument of delicate harmony and precision that doesn't have to be loud to be effective. Listening to half the music produced today it's as if the work Jaco accomplished exists in a vacuum, and nobody outside of that bubble heard anything he did. Perhaps it's just a matter of the rest of the world still being so far behind him that they have yet to catch up to where he was when he left us.
There is a wonderful booklet that accompanies the two discs with a great appreciation and history of Jaco's music written by his biographer Bill Milkowski. There are full credits for each song, right down to who is playing second violin in the string section. But the part I liked the most was a forward written by Carlos Santana, and I'm going to give him the last word.
I can say without hesitation that Jaco changed the music world that we live in, and he changed it for the better. Is there any better or more significant legacy a musician could hope for than that? Carlos Santana