weather report and jaco pastorius -- 1/15/21

Today's selection -- from Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius "The World's Greatest Bass Player" by Bill Milkowski. In the 1970s, a few jazz musicians were pioneering a new style of jazz combined with rock that was referred to as “jazz fusion.” One of the most successful groups was led by former Miles Davis sidemen Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. When they added Jaco Pastorius as the bass player in 1976, their popularity more than doubled:
"[When Weather Report’s bassist left the group, leader Joe Zawinul reported that] 'At first, I didn't know what to think in terms of replacing him, … And then I remembered this kid Pastorius. He had just sent me a rough mix of his solo album, and I was really floored by it, particularly the song "Continuum." So I called Jaco and the first thing I asked him was, "Hey kid, do you play electric bass too?" He got such a warm, rich sound on that Fender fretless, I thought he was playing an upright bass.'

"Zawinul and Wayne Shorter arranged for Jaco to come into the studio and play on 'Cannonball,' an homage to Cannonball Adder­ley, who had died on August 8, 1975. 'Cannonball was from Florida too, and I wanted that Florida sound on this particular track. Plus, I remembered how much Jaco loved Cannonball's music, so I figured he might be the right guy to use. We brought him in, and that was more or less his audition. Wayne and I talked it over, and we both agreed that this kid could play.'

"In addition to playing on 'Cannonball,' Jaco contributed a tune to Black Market: 'Barbary Coast,' a funky, slow-moving vehicle pro­pelled by Jaco's crisp, muted bass figure. 'At first, I didn't like that tune so much,' Zawinul remembers. 'It sounded too much like a Horace Silver line to me. But then we worked a little bit with it and got a nice groove happening. And, of course, that became a kind of signature piece for Jaco.'

"'Barbary Coast' opens with the sound of a train roaring along a railroad track, its horn blasts fading into the distance. This sound is much more than atmospheric filler; it resonates with deep meaning for anyone who grew up in Fort Lauderdale near the tracks that run alongside Dixie Highway. As a kid, Jaco would often wander along those tracks for miles, dreaming of places he might visit one day. Ironically, those same tracks run past the Kalis Funeral Home in Fort Lauderdale, the site of Jaco's wake on September 24, 1987.

"Jaco officially joined Weather Report on April 1, 1976. His earthy R&B feel dramatically altered the character of the band and helped to catapult it to a new level of popularity. As Zawinul puts it, 'Weather Report was a really powerful group with Alphonso on bass. But Jaco was in a space all his own. He was so different from all the other bass players of that time. He had that magical thing about him, the same kind of thing Jimi Hendrix had. He was an electrify­ing performer and a great musician. And he was really responsible for bringing the white kids to our concerts. Before Jaco came along, we were perceived as a kind of esoteric jazz group. We had been pop­ular on college campuses, but after Jaco joined the band we started selling out big concert halls everywhere. Jaco became some kind of All-American folk hero to these kids.'

"Part of Jaco's appeal was the sheer visceral strength of his groove oriented bass playing, which he had honed to perfection during those ten months on the road with Wayne Cochran & the C.C. Rid­ers. You could feel Jaco's powerful 16th-note lines pushing the band, challenging the soloists while still holding down the groove. The clarity of his ideas and the speed of his execution astounded listen­ers. As Chip Stern noted in a Musician article on Weather Report: 'Jaco Pastorius, one of the most original and inspired musicians of the decade, is able to take on Miroslav Vitous's rhythmic-harmonic­-melodic role and put up the funk as well.'

"A natural extrovert, Jaco was acutely aware of the concept of Showtime, an awareness he inherited from his gregarious father. With his Florida hippie attire (baggy white beach pants, tie-dyed T-­shirts, headband or Phillies baseball cap covering his shoulder-­length hair) and wild stage antics, Jaco quickly developed a charis­matic stage persona that captivated the curious.

"One of his favorite tricks was to spread baby powder on the floor so he could shuffle and slide across the stage with the ease of a young James Brown. 'He would never go on without that baby pow­der,' remembers one Weather Report roadie. 'And if he ran out of the stuff, he'd send me out to the nearest store and hold up the show until I got back with it.'

"Peter Erskine vividly recalls his first encounter with Jaco's baby powder routine. 'We were in Japan. It was my first concert with Weather Report [in the summer of 1978]. During the soundcheck the road crew was spreading baby powder on the stage, and I asked, 'What's that for?' Jaco indicated shoosh to them, like it was some big secret or something. He looked at me sort of smiling and said, 'You'll see.'

"'That night we started the concert with "Elegant People," a Wayne Shorter tune. Just before it kicked into the funky section, Jaco came over to me and yelled, "Check it out!" And he started doing these amazing James Brown moves, gliding across the stage on one foot like he was ice-skating. I couldn't believe it. It looked so great, I just started laughing. And all the while, he was playing the funkiest bass so effortlessly and looking back at me and smiling. That was the best welcome into the band I could have imagined.'

"Throughout his time with Weather Report, Jaco would use his solo feature in concert to pay tribute to his heroes, quoting liberally from Jimi's 'Purple Haze' and 'Third Stone from the Sun,' Bird's 'Donna Lee,' Wilson Pickett's 'Funky Broadway,' and the Beatles' 'Black­bird.' With this pastiche of musical styles, Jaco not only entertained the audience but opened some ears to new sounds, providing a bridge between the rock and jazz camps. Young white rock fans would flock to Weather Report shows to see Jaco throw his bass up in the air like Pete Townshend of the Who and do backflips off his amp, and they'd come away with their first taste of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

"While some critics dismissed Jaco's stage antics as shameless grandstanding, they could not deny the brilliance of his playing. With the exposure generated by his solo debut album and Weather Report's Black Market, both out by the summer of 1976, Jaco was her­alded as the big noise in the industry, the guiding light of a new gen­eration, the player who was single-handedly changing the role of the electric bass. The facility with which he played was unprece­dented in the short history of his instrument, which had been invented only 25 years before. His time was flawless, his stamina staggering, and his melodic invention went well beyond the accom­plishments of such electric bass pioneers as Monk Montgomery, James Jamerson, Duck Dunn, and Jerry Jemmott. And Jaco's creative use of harmonics was nothing less than revolutionary."



Bill Milkowski


Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius "The World's Greatest Bass Player"


Miller Freeman Books


1995 by Bill Milkowski


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