“For those of us who considered ourselves bass players in the ’70s, Jaco Pastorius and the almost supernatural miracles he could wring from the instrument in his hands were as revolutionary as [Jimi] Hendrix had been to guitarists a decade earlier” — Sting
“Jaco was a complete artist. He really defined the bass player as a complete artist, not just a bass player, because he was writing all this amazing stuff for big bands and soloing like a horn player and grooving like nobody else.” — Victor Wooten
“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.” — Pat Metheny
“My name is John Francis Pastorius III, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.” — Pastorius introducing himself to Weather Report keyboardist Joe Zawinul.
The birthday of John Francis Anthony (Jaco) Pastorius III was December 1. Had he lived to see this year’s birthday he would have been 63-years-old. Since he died in 1987 from injuries suffered in an after-hours beating outside of a nightclub, countless words have been written about his impact on the bass community and on music as a whole.
Many great tributes to Pastorius already exist on the web. NPR aired a nice retrospective on the twentieth anniversary of Pastorius’ death. Bass Musician Magazine also ran a lengthy article on Pastorius’ life and continued legacy in 2011. For those wanting to do a deep dive into Pastorius’ life there is Bill Milkowski’s controversial biography entitled Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius. Given the availability of those resources, I want to spend the rest of this post speaking autobiographically about Pastorius and his impact on me and my life.
My first exposure to Pastorius was as a junior in high school when I became aware of Weather Report and their tune “Birdland” from the album Heavy Weather. My best friend was the guitar player in the high school jazz band and “Birdland” was in their setlist. In an effort to learn the tune my friend purchased a cassette copy of the Heavy Weather album from which “Birdland” was taken. I followed suit, purchased my own cassette copy of Heavy Weather, and proceeded to wear it out. From the sublime lyricism of “A Remark You Made,” to the jaunty groove of “Palladium,” to the blinding technical brilliance of “Havona” and “Teen Town,” it is safe to say I had never heard anything remotely like it on the electric bass. As Sting said in the quote above, Pastorius was to the electric bass what Hendrix was to the electric guitar.
As I mentioned in my musical autobiography post, my early influences as young guitar player were basic meat-and-potatoes rock and heavy metal. However, as a young kid growing up in the 1970s, the first group I ever adored was The Jackson 5. I loved their variety show on television and I owned several of the LPs. I also loved music by The Commodores, Rufus & Chaka Khan, and The O’Jays. When I began to consider the bass, those long-dormant Motown/R&B influences came bubbling back to the surface and I fell in love all over again with groove-oriented music. No bass player on the planet grooved with more ferocity than Pastorius.
Heavy Weather acted as a gateway drug into other albums featuring Pastorius–the rest of the Weather Report albums featuring the bassist, Land of the Midnight Sun by Al Di Meola, Bright Size Life by Pat Metheny, and of course Pastorius’ revolutionary solo debut. I fell in love with all of those albums, but was especially fond of the Metheny record and Pastorius’ self-titled album. I performed “Donna Lee” on my senior electric bass recital as an acknowledgement of my love for Pastorius’ playing.
These days, however, it is Pastorius’ work with Joni Mitchell that I find to be the most deeply satisfying his career. The emphasis is not on blinding technique, although the bass playing on the live version of “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” from Shadows and Light would give even the most prolific bass player the fantods. What distinguishes Pastorius’ work with Mitchell is the delicate lyricism, taste, and beauty of bass tone. Pastorius utterly redefined the role of the electric bass in a folk/rock setting that is still startling today. Mitchell has stated that Pastorius’ free-ranging bass style was what she had always wanted in a bassist, but could never find in other players. Theirs was a perfect music fit.
Pastorius was blazing a trail that seems to have been almost exclusively his. Only a few bassists have tried to follow Pastorius’ lead in making the electric bass a co-lead instrument alongside a folk singer. Michael Manring was clearly working within the Mitchell/Pastorius template in his mid-1990s sideman work with Michael Hedges, Patti Larkin, and John Gorka on albums like Watching My Life Go By, Tango and Jack’s Crows. Former Pastorius student Mark Egan added similar touches to the David Wilcox album Home Again. Pino Palladino certainly had Pastorius in mind while playing on Joan Armatrading’s album The Shouting Stage. And bassist Larry Klein (who would for a time become Mr. Joni Mitchell) added Pastorius-esque flourishes to albums like Fat City by Shawn Colvin and Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo.
This highly interactive way of the bass interacting with a vocalist is one of the biggest influences I hear in my own bass playing. I’m nowhere near as proficient or as tasteful as Pastorius, nor do I play a fretless bass as he did. However, when accompanying a vocalist, I do try to straddle the line a bit in playing “normal” bass and adding short flourishes that act as a counterpoint to the vocal melody.
I will never be as technically gifted as Jaco Pastorius, but his playing demonstrates fresh and surprising ways to support and accompany a vocalist. And for that I am grateful.
Here is a Spotify playlist containing six of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs that feature Pastorius.