Three Views Of A Secret

Five minutes of some of the greatest playing you will ever, ever witness:

Are you picking up what he’s laying down?

Jaco Pastorius died twenty-three years ago today, as a result of a beating, and among ‘serious’ music circles he seems strangely un-missed. How could this be?

He has his fans, rabid fans, musicians and listeners at the nexus of jazz, fusion, rock, funk and pop. It’s a big enough group in a small enough nexus. Too small. He gets too little love among jazz musicians, and none at all that I can see from musicians and composers in contemporary art music, who themselves are admirers of other jazz musicians and Radiohead and Björk. I think one of the problems is Jaco is just too much fun, too much of a joy. That bursting, pervasive joy in making music comes out in every note he plays, it can dominate a situation but is never egocentric. He may seem unserious, like he’s just screwing around (although at a level of virtuosity that would then be truly preternatural). Someone experiencing and producing that much sheerly musical physical and soulful pleasure cannot be making serious music. But what could possibly be more serious, more to the point, more important?

Much of his reputation was made in Weather Report, and that’s another problem. Joe Zawinul, in a memorable Musician magazine interview, stated that the group was “the greatest fucking band in the world, man.” And he was right. But again, they made music too much fun, they had too many of the ‘wrong’ type of fans (fusion mavens, rockers, smooth jazzers), they didn’t swing enough, too many synthesizers, the music was too cold. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. Fuck it, really, if you can’t hear how great the music is, how human, natural, funky, soulful, then you can’t. If you can, and you have some preconceived notion that prevents you from admitting how much it moves you, then get professional help.

This last is not facetious. One of the issues ‘critics’ had with the band was the partnership of Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul. Shorter was deeply, deservedly admired, and critics felt his jazz and blues musicianship was stifled by all the electronic keyboards. The white European stole the black jazz musician’s mojo. Racial stereotyping anyone? Of course, anyone with ears can hear the cerebral, abstract strain in Shorter going back to his Blue Note period, and the complete funk in the hands of the Austrian who wrote “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” for Cannonball Adderley.  When the two split, their first solo albums were full of surprises; Shorter’s distant, cold Atlantis , while Zawinul’s Dialects was not only warm, soulful, grooving but represented a technological breakthrough, the first all-MIDI recording. Yeah, synthesizer’s can be played with warmth, and white Europeans can dance.

And Jaco could dance, I would say it was the basis of his art. He grew up musically playing soul, funk and R&B on the chitlin’ circuit, gradually becoming a jazz musician. He made music to move your feet, which of course is the basis of jazz, but after be-bop, that type of crowd-pleasing musicianship was looked down on, mere dance music. Of course, when you watch and listen to him play, you see how misguided the insult is. The mere dance music is as wonderful as any kind of music you’ll ever hear, and the skill is hard to comprehend. Jaco was a virtuoso in more than one way, playing the electric bass with more facility than has been witnessed before and since, and using the instrument to make a beautiful American gumbo of soul, funk, rock and be-bop in every note. The brilliance of his musical, aesthetic mind is indisputable, that he put that mind to use playing popular music with deep soul and sophistication is a gain to the world. We are inclined to think of genius as manifested in things we cannot possible understand or imagine for ourselves, but genius is just as profound, and true, when it applies itself to making the most beautiful, comprehensible, even commonplace thing.

Jaco, of course, did make new things. His first solo album is scattered and underdone, a sampler of his qualities rather than a fully realized statement. But it does blow minds with Jaco ripping fleetly through “Donna Lee,” then displaying how technique is put to work in service of expression on the gorgeous, delicate “Portrait Of Tracy,” both a great composition and a great demonstration of what can be done with the electric bass.

His second album, Word of Mouth , is a real masterpiece and an essential part of any music collection. It’s a coherent statement and profoundly, strangely imaginative. The elements – tremendous compositions and equally fine big band arrangements on “Three Views of a Secret” and “Liberty City,” an unbelievable rendition of the Bach “Chromatic Fantasy” and one of the most creative Beatle’s covers on record, “Blackbird” – are brought together into an elusive and fascinating whole through bits of structural and sonic detail. Jaco features the steel drums player Othello Molineaux throughout, the sound is unique and Molineaux’s playing is excellent. He’s countered with Toots Thielmans, the harmonica virtuoso, and his lyrical voice is featured both within the big band setting and accompanying on the Beatles cover. The album begins in tension with “Crisis,” glides effortlessly through lush and tremendously satisfying large ensemble playing, then turns far afield musically and psychically, “Blackbird” interrupted with some kind of free exchange between koto and voice, with Jaco playing lead on the bass like it was an electric guitar. The large ensemble returns and it ends in the unabashed joy of “John and Mary.” The music is fantastic throughout, and beyond that listening to the record is like following Jaco through his own dream states. He’s doing more than playing great tunes, he’s digging deep into his soul and sharing his humanity with the listener. The result is both familiar and disorienting, unlike any other record I’ve heard before or since.

Jaco was a misfit, for good musically and ultimately, on a personal basis, for tragic ill. When he played the bass he was like Ray Brown, Scott LaFaro, Dizzy Gillespie, Francis Rocco Prestia, Rostropovich, Jimmy Hendrix and Iggy Pop all at the same time! He was both ahead and beyond his time, punk jazz before punk really hit, and still beyond anything laid down by John Zorn. And he unselfconsciously loved to make music and that is something everyone should be able to understand. Dig it.

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8 comments

  1. Nice to read this appreciation of Jaco from a lover of “serious” music. It immediately made me think of a brief concert preview of some Chicago avant-garde electric bassists, where the journalist Bill Meyer distills all of Jaco’s work into the words, “ugly cliche.” Read it here: http://bit.ly/bavjCe (ctrl+F Jaco). Before reading that, I didn’t quite realize to what extent “serious” music thinkers discounted Jaco. Thanks for speaking some truth.

    1. Thanks Lucas. What Meyer writes is truly hard to believe. Jaco had a huge musical personality but one that fit the quality of his music-making exactly, and was a warm, embracing ensemble player. Anyone who can’t hear that has cloth ears and an arbitrary notion that a bass player can’t lead. Does Meyer think Dave Holland is all ugly clichés too? No, it has always been fashionable for critics to knock Jaco. It’s as if they aspire to be political reporters.

  2. Thank you very much for sharing these thoughts. I do believe that Jaco’s best music is written for and performed within his wonderful Word of Mouth big band.

  3. wow, unappreciated.

    Maybe in the strange world of jazz “critics” and experts, but not in the other, real world of music lovers,

    and not in the world of electric bass players.

    Jaco was the Charley Parker or Hendrix of electric bass.

    the player that all electric bass players since, have emulated. and just like Jimi, I don’t think many have come close.

    and, a composer, who wrote some very beautiful songs, like three views of a secret.

    great article, thanks for taking a poke at the “experts” who know better than my own ears, what I should like.

  4. I don’t know about Jaco – I get that the guy was technically skilled and deserves huge credit for changing the way people looked at electric bass but the music itself sort of sucks. In terms of Jaco, the most memorable thing after his virtuosity is his incredible cheesiness.

  5. I don’t get the small minded observation that Jaco is not hugely respected, missed, and appreciated for all he was. The perspective I get from serious musicians is that the history of the bass is divided into two periods: before Jaco, and after Jaco….

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