The Virtuoso of Joy

Jaco Pastorius: Truth, Liberty & Soul

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“Virtuoso” is used promiscuously, without much thought for the actual thing it is describing.

Here’s an example: Lang Lang is considered a virtuosic pianist. He plays at fast tempos and does so with a lot of demonstrative physical flourishes. He also has terrible technique, constantly fudging passages and in the times I’ve seen him unable to maintain a consistent pulse or tempo. I’ve also never heard any ideas from him, so his ability to play the piano and think about music are both questionable to me. There’s nothing I see in him that’s virtuosic, other than perhaps public presentation.

Then there are musicians like Oscar Peterson, or Jascha Heifetz, or Al Di Meola, who can play the hell out of their instrument but, to my ear and heart, do nothing more than spin out polished notes—they have nothing to say. Admiring their technique only goes so far.

Virtuosos to me are musicians who have technique that supports thinking, and the insight and depth of their thinking is so grand that it needs astonishing technique to speak. Think beyond mere dexterity to phrasing, the clear articulation of complex music, the expressive use of timbre. Think Glenn Gould, Django Reinhardt, Anne Sophie-Mutter.

And think Jaco Pastorius. Jaco was an astonishing, jaw-dropping player, the kind of musician who has you at first not quite believing that the things he is doing can actually be done. That thought is immediately swept away by the utter wonder of his music making, the grand pleasure. With Jaco, that was an enveloping universe of funk, soul, jazz, beauty, and, above all else, joy.

Jaco still elicits vituperation (check a couple of the comments on this post from 2010), which mystifies me. I press my sympathetic imagination, and I just can’t find any thinking that would reject the sheer social pleasure of his playing. You have to have a hardness in your heart to sneer at the gifts Jaco offered.

Yes, there are purists of all types, who are ideologically against things like electric instruments, rock beats in jazz, what they see as the mongrelization of styles (which is pretty damn ignorant in a mongrel culture like ours), or even that, under Jaco’s hands, the bass was a lead instrument.

He played the bass as a lead instrument because that was his personality, and you don’t need to have known him to see that in his playing—that spirit that came through every note was irrepressible and full of a particular and worthwhile purity, the pure joy of making music for others. Live or on record, Jaco’s primary expression was something like: “playing music for you is the greatest thing in the world, man.”

Underneath was Jaco’s imagination, which was capacious, articulate, and disciplined. His self-titled debut album, which is still great, starts famously with him playing “Donna Lee” on the bass (that set a lot of musicians on their ears), and then immediately segues into the tight funk of “Come On, Come Over,” with Sam & Dave. The jazz police charged him with a felony, I think it’s fabulous and it hits the body so hard that one would have to consciously wall off and reject a sense of fun.

Debut albums in jazz are generally made to show the listener what the musician can do, and Jaco is no exception. Although it is in the sense that what Jaco could do was both unfettered by convention and tightly focussed on a seamless blend of American vernacular music. Jaco came out as a jazz musician, but he was fundamentally just an American musician—he came up professionally playing soul, funk, rock, and R&B along with jazz, the last one of the range of American vernacular musics. And playing professionally before he became a star, he was a superb ensemble player.

Listen to him that way, from “Donna Lee” to “Come On, Come Over” to “Third Stone From the Sun.” Listen past his playing, if you can, to his composing and arranging, which were tremendous, from the abstract riffs of “Teen Town” to the gorgeous, formally sophisticated “Three Views of a Secret,” to the charts for his exceptional Word of Mouth big band, and then to the deep, open-ended beauty of his essential Word of Mouth album. And of course, “Portrait of Tracy,” not just a showpiece for what Jaco could do with the bass, but a haunting and lovely piece of music. It was, as Charlie Parker said to Symphony Sid, “all just music.”

He was a masterful musician in the old sense (before industrialization, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and academic/professional specialization) of the composer-musician, creating in every aspect of his practice. Everything he did was deeply musical. As he told Guitar World magazine, “I have never tried to play fast in my life.” You can hear this: even churning out funky 16th-note bass lines, everything is both clearly articulated and musically meaningful, even the briefest note has a thought and a purpose behind it. Few musicians can claim that.

This new archival release continues the joy and spirit of Jaco’s music making. It comes in the typical beautiful package from Resonance, and is the usual labor of love and devotion from producer Zev Feldman. It adds on to the somewhat confusing discographical legacy of the WOM band: Invitation is a distillation of a Japan-released two CD set, Twins I & II, while The Birthday Concert is a separate gig from December, 1981. If your budget dictates only one of these recordings, make it Invitation, which is tight, punchy, and a great representation of this period. Ideally, you want to have the Twins and then add this live concert from the old Avery Fisher Hall in 1982. The recording is clean and rich, though oddly the sound quality seems to mellow the mood. Not that this is a bad thing, but the WOM band had a jauntiness that flowed from Jaco—hearing less of that is a bittersweet reminder of how tragic his life turned out to be, and why his loss still feels so raw for those who appreciate joy.



UPDATED: Fixed Spotify embed

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One thought on “The Virtuoso of Joy

  1. Reblogged this on harmonicsdb and commented:
    ““Virtuoso” is used promiscuously, without much thought for the actual thing it is describing.

    Here’s an example: Lang Lang is considered a virtuosic pianist. He plays at fast tempos and does so with a lot of demonstrative physical flourishes. He also has terrible technique, constantly fudging passages and in the times I’ve seen him unable to maintain a consistent pulse or tempo. I’ve also never heard any ideas from him, so his ability to play the piano and think about music are both questionable to me. There’s nothing I see in him that’s virtuosic, other than perhaps public presentation.

    Then there are musicians like Oscar Peterson, or Jascha Heifetz, or Al Di Meola, who can play the hell out of their instrument but, to my ear and heart, do nothing more than spin out polished notes—they have nothing to say. Admiring their technique only goes so far.”

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