Jazz Master of the Month
Jaco Pastorius, the multi-talented musician known by practically everyone on a first name basis, literally revolutionized bass playing from jazz, rock, country, hip-hop, and beyond. From Africa to America he and his sound have been described simply by saying his name…JACO. His unprecedented originality both technically and “improvisationally” is studied and imitated by every bassist (in some way or another) to this day.
Born John Francis Anthony Pastorius III, he became best known for his work with the group Weather Report from 1976–1981, as well as with Joni Mitchell. His playing was known for its highly technical, Latin-influenced, lyrical soloing on the fretless bass, and innovative use of harmonics. He was inducted into the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1988, one of only seven bassists so honored (and the only electric bass guitarist).
Jaco started out playing drums but injured his wrist playing football at age 13. After experiencing difficulty maintaining his acoustic bass in the heat and humidity of his Florida residence, he opted for a Fender (electric) bass. By age 22 he was teaching bass at the University of Miami where he met and began playing with a student (guitarist) named Pat Matheny in 1973. By 1976 he released his debut album simply titled JACO. It was widely praised by critics. The album also boasted a lineup of heavyweights in the jazz community at the time, including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Lenny White, Don Alias, and Michael Brecker. Even the soul singers Sam & Dave reunited to appear on the track, “Come On, Come Over.”
Jaco joined Weather Report during the recording sessions for Black Market (1976), and he became a vital part of the band by virtue of the unique qualities of his bass playing, his skills as a composer (and, in time, arranger), and his exuberant showmanship on stage.
In the course of his musical career, Jaco played on dozens of recording sessions for other musicians, both in and out of jazz circles. He also collaborated with jazz figures Flora Purim and Airto Moriera. Jaco can be heard on Moreira’s 1977 release I’m Fine, How Are You? His signature sound is prominent on Purim’s 1978 release Everyday Everynight, on which he played the bass melody for a Michel Colombier composition entitled “The Hope,” and performed bass and vocals on one of his own compositions, “Las Olas.”
Near the end of his career, Jaco guested on low-key releases by jazz artists including guitarist Mike Stern, guitarist and drummer Brian Melvin. In 1985, he recorded an instructional video, Modern Electric Bass.
Jaco was noted for his virtuosic bass lines which combined Afro-Cuban rhythms with R&B to create 16th-note funk lines syncopated with ghost notes. He played these with a floating thumb technique on the right hand, anchoring on the bridge pickup while playing on the E and A strings and muting the E string with his thumb while playing on higher strings. Examples include “Come On, Come Over” from the album Jaco Pastorius and “The Chicken” (originally written by James Brown bandleader Alfred “ Pee Wee” Ellis).
Jaco was also known for popularizing the fretless electric bass, with which he was able to achieve an almost horn-like tone while playing in the upper register. Examples include the melodies on “Birdland” from the Weather Report album Heavy Weather and “Three Views of a Secret” from the Weather Report album Night Passage, as well as his line on the Joni Mitchell song “Refuge of the Road” from her album Hejira.
One of Jaco’s major innovations was in the use of harmonics, which isolate the overtones of a note by muting the string at a harmonic node, resulting in a much higher note than would otherwise be sounded. He used this technique extensively to construct melodies, such as in his composition “Portrait of Tracy” from his eponymous album, and the melody from the popular Weather Report tune “Birdland,” which is often mistaken for guitar.
Jaco received two Grammy Award nominations in 1977 for his self-titled debut album, including Best Jazz Performance By A Group and Best Jazz Performance By A Soloist for “Donna Lee.” He received another nomination in 1978, Best Jazz Performance By A Soloist, for his work on Weather Report’s Heavy Weather. In 1988, following his death, Jaco was elected by readers’ poll for inclusion in the Downbeat Hall of Fame.