On the 1st of December, 1951, John Anthony Pastorius came into the world. During his short life he would influence the history of music, redefine the concept of electric bass, garner world acclaim and descend into madness. Known to the world as Jaco, he reinvented the electric bass with his self-titled debut album. The opening track Donna Lee was an arrangement of Charlie Parker’s bebop classic. Up to that point no bass player had imagined the instrument was capable of rendering a saxophone melody with such accuracy and passion. This was followed by Come On, Come Over, an essay in Rhythm and Blues, this piece captures the true genius of Jaco Pastorius. It reveals the secret to his mastery; unlike the thousands of clones that would follow him, attempting to capture his technical prowess, Jaco himself grew up playing groove music. Because of this all his lines, from the most complex to the simplest, are firmly rooted in an awareness of time-feel. The third track, Continuum, is widely considered one of the greatest performances ever captured on the instrument. The opening bar hints at Jaco’s command of chordal harmonics, something which was not standard practice on the instrument until Jaco’s influence. All of Jaco’s musical devices are in this piece. However unlike some of his later work, his phrases flow so effortlessly through the form that one could be forgiven for thinking the piece more complex than it really is.
While the form is unusual (A – 8 bars A2 – 10 bars – B – 4 bars) the sheer gravity of Jaco’s ideas blur and bend through this harmonic space so that ‘home’ relocates itself and one is left wandering in the musical wilderness until Jaco chooses to bring you home (in the form of an explosive tonic chord – pp 45). Some of his ideas presented here have entered the lexicon of the genre. On page 44 we have a 5 note melodic shape imposed on a 16th note rhythm. This rhythmic/harmonic juxtaposition was to become a feature in his playing. In addition, by choosing not to conceal his RnB roots (pp 45) Jaco heralded the way for generations of electric bass players who have grown up listening to mainstream radio, yet seek something more. This album features such jazz heavy weights as Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter, whom Jaco would later work with in Weather Report. Perhaps his beautiful use of fourths throughout this solo are a homage to that ‘Wayne Shorter sound’. His explosive burst of fourths on page 45 do resemble (albeit sped up and augmented) Wayne’s classic, Witch Hunt.
The remainder of the album delivers revelation after revelation. Portrait of Tracy is possibly the most influential piece of the suite in that it has entered the repertoire of every bass player exploring the unaccompanied format. The command of harmonics displayed, both as cluster chords and melody was earth shattering in the context of it’s release. One must appreciate that the electric bass wasn’t invented until 1951, the year of Jaco’s birth. There had been prototypes earlier, most notably the awkwardly titled “Electronic Bass Fiddle”. This was featured in an Audiovox catalogue in 1935 and featured a 30 ½-inch scale neck. However the instrument failed to catch on and it would be Leo Fender’s Precision Bass with it’s 34-inch scale neck that would become the template for electric bass design.
The release of ‘Jaco Pastorius’ in 1976 truly was ‘the shot heard throughout the world’ of music. In one fell swoop Jaco redefined the electric bass, broadening the scope of the instrument and setting the benchmark for all who would follow him. It is impossible to hear this album as it was heard in the 1970’s. It’s influence was so profound that even uninitiated listeners are familiar with the lexicon it created. Sadly, the enduring feature of this album is the bitter sweat juxtaposition one feels listening to it. It’s promise of seemingly limitless potential now coalesces with the tragic reality of Jaco‘s life.
By his early thirties, after receiving the Downbeat Magazine ‘Best Electric Bass’ readers poll four years in a row (1978, ‘79, ‘80, ‘81) Jaco was homeless, living on the streets of New York, and effectively ostracised by the music community. Through the course of his life Jaco suffered manic depression. This was not diagnosed until his condition had been exacerbated after years of substance abuse and his self destruction was well and truly imminent. Anecdotes from this phase of Jaco’s life range from the bizarre to the truly disturbing. Reports of appearing on stage in ‘black face’ with a shaved head were followed by reports of him throwing his bass into Hiroshima Bay. In the years that followed he collected a throng of fans anticipating the next sensational Jaco story, which only served to fuel his descent and by 1984 he had lost all his sideman work and was living on the streets. In 1987, Jaco resurfaced in his hometown of Florida. On September the 11th, days after narrowly escaping a jail sentence for multiple robberies, he stumbled toward the Midnight Bottle Club and was denied entry. A fight broke out and the “greatest bass player in the world“1, was beaten into a coma. On the 21st of September he was pronounced brain dead and life support switched off. He was 35.
Personally, this man is the reason I play this instrument. While I dabbled away at piano, drums, clarinet, guitar, harmonica it was not until I was given a Jaco recording that the future seemed clear. It was the world he created that I grew up in. I remember listening to Weather Report until I fell asleep and being whisked away to alternate realities. Ironically that is not an experience I have had with much of the music created by those who followed Jaco. His prowess on the instrument has been well documented. His solos have been transcribed and studied. And yet even the greatest exponents of the Jaco sound (such as Hadrien Feraud) seem to miss something. There’s more to this music than hours of practising. When Jaco was on the streets of New York he would often sit in on blues jams and sing his favourite number Fanny Mae. He grew up on roots music, be it Caribbean, Blues or Soul. Perhaps this is the secret to Jaco – if it is not coming from the soul, then it’s not music.