J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Jaco: One Name Says It All

For jazz, the 1970s were the best of times and the worst of times. Fusion super groups like Weather Report and Return to Forever were selling out stadiums, but great swing and bop musicians found themselves professionally marginalized. Jaco Pastorius was a big part of that story. For bass players, he was the story. Regardless of what you thought of Weather Report’s style, there was no denying his ferocious technique. Sadly, he met a premature end, just like too many other jazz legends before him. Paul Marchand & Stephen Kijak survey Pastorius’s life and legacy in the simply but aptly titled Jaco (trailer here), which releases today on DVD with a full second disk of additional, high quality interviews.

Early in Jaco, Juan Alderete of the Mars Volta refers to Pastorius as bass players’ “Hendrix” and it is easy to see why. Pastorius even did his own solo rendition of “America the Beautiful”—on the Fender bass. He is one of the few jazz musicians who is often referred to solely by his first name, like Miles or Duke. Granted, Jaco is a somewhat distinctive alternative to Jack or John Francis Pastorius, as he born, but he truly made a name for himself taking jazz to its funkiest limits.

Pastorius’s formative years were spent in Florida, where he picked up all forms of music, including the rhythms he heard on Cuban radio. One of the cool things about Jaco the documentary is the credit it gives to the Florida music scene at the time, including diverse artists like Anglo R&B road warrior Wayne Cochran and Algerian-born jazz pianist Alex Darqui. Just about everyone hired Pastorius, because he was that good. However, Pastorius returned the favor, bringing a number of his FL colleagues up to New York to play spots on his debut record for Epic.

Despite his widely hailed debut, Pastorius’s popularity really exploded during his stint with Weather Report. It was already one of the biggest super group before he joined, but he took them to an unheard of level for jazz. Alphonso Johnson, Pastorius’s predecessor in the band, is quite a gracious good sport talking about the moment when he realized Joe Zawinul (the unofficial, first-among-equals bandleader) had eyes to replace him with Jaco. However, some of the most honest and revealing reminiscences come from drummer Peter Erskine, who joined shortly after Pastorius.

In fact, the interview segments throughout Jaco are unusually insightful and often deeply personal. It must have been a difficult process choosing what to include for the documentary, because there is not a lot of filler in the supplementary DVD. In one case, Joni Mitchell tells an anecdote that is more about Wayne Shorter than Pastorius, but Weather Report fans should find it equally interesting. It is also nice to hear Al Di Meola fondly remember time spent with Zawinul when his band was on tour with Weather Report, because the Austrian keyboardist comes across as somewhat mean-spirited in the doc proper.

In many ways, Pastorius’s story is the oldest one of jazz. He had enormous talent, but also terrible demons to wrestle with. Yet, it was not the drugs and mental health problems that killed Pastorius, but a club owner named Luc Havan, who served four excruciatingly long months for beating to death one of the most innovative bassists of all time, or as Pastorius’ widow Ingrid observed: “one month for each child he left fatherless.” However, Marchand & Kijak (perhaps wisely) prefer to celebrate his gifts rather than to stoke resentment over his untimely end.

If you watch Jaco the documentary and the additional footage, you will understand just how much Pastorius revolutionized music. Jazz fans that still don’t appreciate Joni Mitchell might finally start to get her after hearing how she related to musicians like Pastorius and Shorter. Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) will also surprise viewers with his jazz hipness, earning extra style points for the Thelonius Monk t-shirt. Likewise, Metallica’s Robert Trujillo is just as eloquent speaking of Pastorius and also helped bring the film together by serving as producer.

Both disks comprehensively illuminate Pastorius as an artist and a flawed human being, while further burnishing his reputation as a musician beyond category. Very highly recommended, Jaco the two-DVD set is a terrific package that would make a good Christmas gift for fusion fans.

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