Ask any bass player to name his top 10 bassists and you’ll find that Jaco Pastorius almost always features in the top three. Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion but whether devotees or not all players agree that Jaco was unique, with an extraordinary ability to make his basslines fluid and significant no matter what he was playing or who he was playing for.
As with any genius – as he surely was – his destiny ran close to insanity and sadly much of what has been written about him centres on that element, yet all that really matters in the grand scheme of things is what he brought to the world of bass playing.
Jaco started out as a drummer but barely into his teens he broke his left arm, lost the ability to play properly and was kicked out of the band he’d originally formed! At 15 he was invited back if he could play bass so he bought one. “I didn’t know where the notes were or anything, I just started grooving and I’ve never been out of work since!” he said.
Interviews with Jaco were few and far between as he lived in an era when singers and lead guitarists commanded far more interest than mere bass players and it’s only now, years after the death of many a great bass player, that we are aware of the short-sightedness of this ‘frontman’ approach.
However, anyone taking centre stage is only as strong as his or her supporting team and Jaco was enormously strong. Yet it wasn’t always appreciated as Bob Bobbing, a bass playing friend from their teenage years, recalls:
“He really did impress people, even though band leaders at that time didn’t appreciate what he was doing that much, because if you were lead singer it would get in the way, interfere with the agenda of the band leader or possibly other players.”
Joe Zawinal, leader of Weather Report, would no doubt agree with that as the disagreements between him and Jaco over musical policy were legendary. Never the less Jaco got plenty of opportunity to take centre stage himself during his time with the band where his bass features on tracks like Teen Town and Birdland, (where Jaco used pinched harmonics), became nightly highlights.
His recording career was actually pretty short spanning from 1974-1986 but during that time he was able to enjoy working with a variety of artists and was able to leave his distinctive mark on all that he touched. He could be a fearsome personality and was often accused of trying to dominate the music in which he was involved yet he was charming and witty in person, although obviously confident in his own ability.
Early on he played on Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life album but it was the release of his own album in 1976 that brought real success. With tracks like Portrait Of Tracy, Donna Lee, Continuum and Come On, Come Over this was a bass album like no other.
After hearing his eponymous solo album, Joni Mitchell invited him to play bass on her Hejira album and that proved very useful as it introduced Jaco to a much wider audience. In fact widening his appeal almost became the game plan for 1976 as it was a truly monster year for Jaco’s recording calendar.
As well as the Joni session he was invited to join Weather Report and made a guest appearance on Al Di Meola’s Land Of The Midnight Sun album. He was on just one track with Al, Suite Golden Dawn, a piece that moved from frantic to sublime so ideal fodder for Pastorius.
It was also the first time he played with drummer Alphonse Mouzon. Mouzon commented recently, “This was a difficult piece to play. This was the first time Jaco and I played and recorded together and also the first time Di Meola and I played and recorded together!”
Nevertheless it still sounds fantastic today but perhaps the most curious session for Jaco was on Ian Hunter’s All American Alien Boy! This was an unusual album by the ex Mott The Hoople frontman and packed with performances by several top names of the time so at least Jaco was in good company.