Friday, August 24, 2018

Jaco Pastorius

When Jaco Pastorius first met Joe Zawinul, the keyboardist and composer behind Weather Report, he had his introduction ready. "My name is John Francis Pastorius III," he said, as Zawinul later remembered. "I'm the greatest bass player in the world." Zawinul didn't bite that time out, but after receiving an early mix of Jaco's solo album, he decided to call on the bassist in late 1975. Jaco joined the group and played on two tracks on Weather Report's Black Market: "Cannonball," and his own “Barbary Coast.” 1976 would prove a watershed year.

In 1976, Jaco Pastorius hadn't quite emerged from nowhere, (the few prior recordings on which he could be found may have provided some hint of what was to come), but it was the quadruple punch of fellow legend-in-the-making Pat Metheny's debut Bright Size Life, singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell's classic Hejira, fusion super group Weather Report's Black Market and, most notably, the bassist's own Jaco Pastorius, whose opening track—a duet look at Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" with percussionist Don Alias that spoke of instrumental mastery and remarkable conceptual sophistication—that caused bassists around the world to look up from their instruments. Who was this guy? Where did he come from? 

Pastorius's daring, technically precise electric-bass playing revealed his vision for the instrument that went beyond its traditional supportive position with a taste for counterpoint, the pursuit of melody and a readiness to cross genres. He issued three studio albums during his lifetime and formed several novel bands under the Word of Mouth banner, energized Weather Report when he joined the group in 1976, and was partner to Joni Mitchell from Hejira in 1976 to the incredible double live LP Shadows and Light in 1980.

In Musician magazine, Joni said, "I know he stretched me. I stretched him some too, inadvertently, on things like Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. That was Alexandro Acuna, Don Alias, myself and Jaco. Alex's background is in Latin music, so that track was getting a very Latin percussion sound on the bottom. I said, "No , this is more North American Indian, a more limited palette of drum sounds." So Jaco got an idea. I don't know if he detuned his bass, but he started striking the end of the strings, up by the bridge, and he'd slide with the palm of his palm all the way down to the head. He set up this pattern: du du du doom, du du du doom. Well, it's a five minute song, and three minutes into it his hand started to bleed. He shredded it making it slide the full length of his bass strings. They turned into a grater. So we stopped tapping and he changed to his Venus mound, below the thumb. And when we finished the take, that was bleeding, too. So his whole hand was bleeding. But the music was magnificent, and he was so excited because he'd discovered a new thing. Later he built up calluses and you'd always see him doing those slides. But then he was mad with me because I had copped his new shit for my record! I think he might have had a different pain threshold."  

In 1987, after a night of not-atypical misadventure, Pastorius, who suffered from bipolar disorder exacerbated by drug abuse, was killed by a bouncer who beat him mercilessly.