Learning to Respect Jaco

I guess he really is the most influential pop bassist.

I had always regarded Jaco Pastorius with a certain distaste, as the artist who ruined Weather Report, a 1970’s jazz fusion band whose influential sound helped pave the way for electronic music as we know it today. For me, Sweetnighter stays in my vinyl collection, it was an album prior to Jaco’s first appearance with the band on Heavy Weather (1977).

After watching JACO on Netflix today, I can’t help but respect him as someone extraordinary for his time. It was produced in 2014 by Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, enlisting those Jaco performed with, such as Joni Mitchell, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Carlos Santana, and his followers like Sting and Flea. Incidentally, Santana played a role in Jaco’s violent death, yet this film did not include much testimony to that.

I previously judged Jaco arbitrarily against his iconic sound, the fretless electric bass with chorus delay and bright EQ that accentuates the dynamics of the instrument, as he plucks and bends full chords where most players fall back on harmonic steps that land always at the tonic (first note in the scale). Jaco shredded through scales and harmonic changes with vivid punctuation, often playing the melody rather than the bass line. But that’s just it, he redefined the bass line for popular music.

You know the imitator when you hear it, but you can never forget the original.

As a technical player, the spectrum of his abilities were unmatched. He is forceful, making his presence known in every piece. When it comes down to it, the electric bass is nothing but nickel strings strung to wood and steel components with electromagnetic stuff that ultimately becomes a speaker. The bassist plays the speaker, especially Jaco.

If you put Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, and Les Claypool on the same acoustic bass, then they would arrange their notes and bend the bass itself until their individual voices could emerge. But if you put them all on electric rigs, then they’ll bend the electronics. Jaco was an early musician to bend the electronics. In the documentary, you see numerous performance videos that show he employed technology to individualize his tone. You can replicate those electronics (as imitators now do at a lower price tag than ever) but you would know it isn’t actually Jaco playing.

Until watching this, I hadn’t seen clearly just how much Jaco imitation there was in popular music. It happened with John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Kurt Cobain for that matter. You know the imitator when you hear it, but you can never forget the original. Some artists are imitated by everyone, whether they know it or not.

JACO, as a documentary, is not something I would praise. It was an imitation of a documentary. The camera work is overtly formulaic in that false gritty style that does little to support the speech of the guests — it just keeps your attention moving. It needs to rise to the occasion of covering Jaco with something really compelling, something really energetic and fluid. For the uninitiated, this serves well enough that I would recommend watching it, but I would urge you to be vigilant in questioning authority. The film basically takes well known American popular music icons and uses their authority to praise Jaco endlessly.

Jaco Pastorius, taken from a Weather Report concert, late 1970’s

Witnesses to his true life are brought in, but they do not serve as the primary voice, nor do they do an adequate job on their own of carrying the narrative. There is a point when a well funded documentarian is just taking the easy road rather than putting their capacity to good use.

There is not a single example of a full piece of music performed from beginning to end in this documentary. Something tells me that every song he plays, his entire story is encoded, and to only be given innumerable brief snippets throughout a two-hour documentary seems negligent.

I am at least going to find whatever vinyl album that the song “Crisis” appears on, especially a live record, in addition to his 1981 cornerstone, Word of Mouth, where it first appears. I don’t blame him for ruining Weather Report anymore, and I’m even Jaco admirer.

Sean Ongley

By Sean Ongley

Co-Founder of THRU Media. A background in non-profit, music, and radio preceded my ambitions here. Now, I aspire to produce new media and publish independent journalism at this site and beyond.

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