LET’S START like this. Can you name any professional bass guitarists?
And, how many recordings made by those bass guitarists do you have?
If you could name one or two bassists, you have every musician’s respect and appreciation. If you could name a few, and own some of their recordings, you have our most sincere admiration. If you could name more than a handful and own their recordings, you should write the remainder of this column. Because in all likelihood you already own—and dig heavily—the record that sets my fingers to these keys.
I don’t know many musicians, if any, who do not recall with jaw-slacking stupor the first time they heard Jaco Pastorius play his Fender Jazz Bass (which he painstakingly customized by removing its frets, wood-filling the subsequent gashes, and applying coat upon coat of epoxy).
He played like no other had played before him. He changed a generation of players. He played jazz, funk, pop. He played with Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, David Sanborn; he was a pioneer of electric bass playing. So much could—and deserves—to be said about this complicated man, this artist. Yet, it’s impossible for me to summarize here the complex and tragic life that was Jaco’s. And not just because his wiki entry has more potholes than the 405. (Actually, I have no idea if the 405 has potholes or not. I’ve never even been to L.A. The 405 is in L.A., right? Well, whatever. I think you’ll still hang with the analogy.)
The words that describe his life form a perfect stereotype of “artist”: genius, friend, husband, alcohol, drugs, anger, bipolar, human, loving son, early death. There swirl around his greatness many stories of dubious authenticity. So, it’s hard to say what can really be said about him. Even his biography is considered a sham by some, and I’m not sure that that accusation is all that accurate, either.
What I can write about Jaco is really something that, well, was written by the great Pat Metheny. (And, in case you don’t know who that is—he’s really important.)
From the liner notes for the reissue of Jaco’s debut album:
Jaco Pastorius may well have been the last jazz musician of the 20th century to have made a major impact on the musical world at large. Everywhere you go, sometimes it seems like a dozen times a day, in the most unlikely places you hear Jaco’s sound; from the latest TV commercial to bass players of all stripes copping his licks on recordings of all styles, from news broadcasts to famous rock and roll bands, from hip hop samples to personal tribute records, you hear the echoes of that unmistakable sound everywhere.
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As with all really great artists though, getting to know him is really a matter of getting know his art. It is a matter of hearing him speak to us and tell us his story in every note and every gesture that emanates from the instrument that became a part of him. That is one way the truly great ones emerge from a crowd of excellent peers. They don’t simply wear their axe. They don’t just put it on and take it off. They are one with their instrument. There isn’t a point at which the man stops and his instrument begins. This was Jaco.
Like all greats, he raised the bar—both of the possibilities of the instrument, but also of the music itself and those that played with him. He made other players better players by his presence. And when on those rare occasions greats come together, each in their prime, something magical happens. Jaco’s album The Birthday Concert stands out as one of those special moments in music history.
In the winter of 1981, Jaco threw a surprise birthday concert for himself, gathering a superstar-studded cast of musicians for a performance that, praise God, was recorded. Here’s the a short list of behemoths that shared the stage that night: Bob Mintzer, Michael Brecker, Don Alias, Peter Erskine, Othello Molineaux, and others. I realize that unless you’re a jazz aficionado, you might not know many of these names, but it’s like saying that Kurt Cobain, Bono, Madonna, The Boss, and Eric Clapton played a concert for and with Stevie Wonder. And, since Jaco, Michael Brecker, and Don Alias are all no longer with us, the magnitude of this night looms.
The evening begins with the palpable anticipation of an audience that knows what is about to come. Before a note is played, we hear Jaco address the audience: “Good evening everybody. I’d like to say hello to my mother.” Ten seconds later the count begins. “One, two, three. Two, two” CRACK . . . and “Soul Intro” blasts off. Think Saturday Night Live—minus everyone save the band—to the tenth power. Mintzer squeals and screams and squeezes more funk from his tenor saxophone than one thought possible, until finally Jaco fully takes the reigns with a bass line so hair-raising it makes Rogaine look like a Flintstones vitamin. At this point we are fully into “The Chicken,” a tune with whaling solos by two saxophoning giants and a groove so fat it should have its own zip code. It’s the kind of tune that sends you into a funky stride embodiment of 70s John Travolta no matter where you are. (Save maybe funerals. And why are you listening to soul/funk/jazz during a funeral anyway. Have some decency.)
Check out this video of “Soul Intro/The Chicken” from 1982.
After listening to “The Chicken” anywhere from two to ten times, we move on to hear the essence of Jaco’s playing in the floating and mysterious, “Continuum.” Harmonics, chords and strong melodic movement don’t usually characterize bass playing, but Jaco derives much of his distinctive style from them. This cut also brings an opportunity to soak in the sound of Jaco’s axe and his unique array of equipment. His tone is unmistakable and here we really get to know it best.
Every track brings gem after gem; from the lilting waltz “Three Views from a Secret,” to the exotic “Reva,” to the Stan Kentonesque “Domingo.” From start to finish, this record delivers. I’ve often heard a complaint about instrumental music; that it’s monotonous without lyrics, that eventually it gets boring and backgroundish. This album offers a rebuttal fit for John Grisham; a vibrant diversity of musical elements that appeals even to those who aren’t drawn to “jazz.” It’s a piece of history; a glimpse into the heart and soul of one man’s passion and genius—of his love for music.
So, whether or not you end up grabbing this disc from your local record shop, the big chain store putting your local shop out of business, or an online megastore putting both of them six feet under, you can at least name one more bass guitarist than when we began. Unless of course, you were already savvy to Jaco and own this record—in which case, be glad I reminded you to blow the dust off that old CD, load it onto your MP3 player of choice and strut your funky stuff.
This article originally appeared on The Curator, an online culture magazine published in New York by the International Arts Movement.
Kevin Gosa is a contributing editor to The Curator, and the membership director of the International Arts Movement.
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