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Six Bass Players Discuss Jaco Pastorius

September 26, 2012  |  11:19am
Six Bass Players Discuss Jaco Pastorius

Last Friday marked the 25th anniversary of the death of legendary electric bass player and composer, Jaco Pastorius. Pastorius, who played with Pat Metheny, Weather Report, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock and many others, is known for his intricate solos and for his innovative use of harmonics on the electric bass and is one of the most influential bassists of all time.

Here, six bass players—Oteil Burbridge, Victor Wooten, Todd Smallie, Esperanza Spalding, Chris Wood and Chris Stillwell—discuss the life, music and enduring legacy of Jaco Pastorius.

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Oteil Burbridge (The Allman Brothers Band; Tedeschi Trucks Band)
Burbridge first heard Pastorius when he was over at a friend’s house for a jam session. “I remember my big brother Kofi telling me to sit down and check out ‘Donna Lee’ and not really believing what I was hearing,” he says. “Since it was a duet with percussionist Don Alias, there was really no room for studio tricks.”

Burbridge thought to himself, “Man this is impossible.” “Right then I knew that the only limitations on the bass were self made. That meant they could be totally remade or destroyed altogether.”

Burbridge was a teenager when saw Pastorius perform live with Weather Report at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in 1977. What heard that night motivated him to become a professional musician: “It impacted me so hard that it altered the course of my life. The synergy between Jaco, Wayne [Shorter], [Joe] Zawinul, [Peter] Erskine and Robert Thomas Jr. was pure magic living at its peak. I thought if I could reach a mere shadow of what I saw that night, it would be worth whatever trials I would have to face. Nothing tops inspiration and that is what you usually got with Jaco.”

When asked with what song he would introduce someone to Pastorius who had never heard him, Burbridge suggests, “Havona” or “A Remark You Made,” but he can’t choose one for himself. “God, how could I possibly pick one song of his to be my favorite? ‘Three Views [of a Secret]?’ ‘Continuum?’ Everything he did with Joni? Every single song on Bright Size Life?”

For Burbridge, Pastorius’ legacy is “to do what you hear in your head regardless of whether or not someone says it’s ‘allowed.’ Things are only impossible until someone proves them otherwise. Let history be the judge. Roles can be expanded, changed, or completely discarded. He didn’t care if beboppers didn’t like electric bass. He didn’t care if rockers didn’t like jazz. He took a derogatory term like “Punk Jazz” and made it legit.”

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Victor Wooten (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones)
Wooten recalls being introduced to Pastorius’ music by a neighbor—his “jazz connection”—who lived around the corner from his family in Newport News, Va. “He played some stuff for me and it just blew me away,” Wooten says. “It was a new way of playing the bass, and I remember having to learn it. I would stay up all night until I learned whatever Jaco was doing. It was really amazing.”

Specifically, Wooten recalls hearing the song “Birdland” for the first time and finding out that was Jaco playing the opening melody with harmonics: “I had no idea it could be done like that.” But it was Pastorius’ self-titled album that had the biggest impact: “What really, really knocked my socks off was when Jaco first came out with his first solo record. I think that was really the main thing that really captured all of us bass players.”

That album not only influenced bass players. According to Wooten, that album changed all musicians: “That was one of the first solo bass records that everyone, not just bass players—every musician, had to recognize. In my mind Jaco is like the Muhammad Ali of bass,” Wooten says. “He would tell you he was the greatest, and then he would go out there and prove it. But, like Muhammad Ali, Jaco had flaws, and Jaco knew that. He knew he had some flaws in his character and his playing, but he knew how to draw your attention away from that and have you focus on what he was great at… It made it exciting.”

Wooten believes without a doubt that Pastorius’ contributions changed the course of the bass. Wooten states, “And even bass players who don’t know who Jaco is, they are influenced by him, whether they know it or not.”

However, the aspect of Pastorius that Wooten admires the most, and tries to capture in his own performances isn’t just about technique: “The thing I really loved most about Jaco was his energy—the energy he brought to the music and every time he stepped on the stage. He kind of broke the mold of what a jazz musician was supposed to be. At that time, it was supposed to be cool, no show-boating, playing serious music. It was all about being serious. He was about making it a performance. He would go on stage and put baby powder in his shoes so that when he jumped off of his amp when he hit the ground there would be a little powdery explosion. I love that kind of stuff. That guy was thinking beyond the music. He wanted to create an experience for his listeners and his viewers. I love that.”

Wooten released two new albums, Words and Tones and Sword and Stone, on his own VIX Records yesterday.

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Todd Smallie (JJ Grey and Mofro; The Derek Trucks Band)
Todd Smallie credits his grandfather for introducing him to Pastorius. “I had been listening to him before I knew who he was.” According to Smallie, his grandfather purchased a Ford Crown Victoria that came with a compilation cassette tape, to demonstrate the quality of the stereo. The cassette included Weather Report’s “Birdland.” He says, “I remember hearing ‘Birdland,’ and it blew me away; the deep bass and the harmonics coming in. I was probably 10 years old, and in a weird, weird way, without even knowing who Jaco was at that point or even for the next couple of years, it was one of the songs that really inspired me to play bass.”

Smallie states that Pastorius had a profound impact on the way he approached bass. “I realized that it was the spirit of the music more than just the notes or the technical side of it. It was more than the sound of the instrument, especially when you finally saw a video of him play and you realized, ‘Holy cow this guy is completely pouring his heart and soul out into this. No wonder it is so bad ass.’ It was no holds barred. He played the piano line, the sax line, the bass line, the guitar lines, even doing the rhythmic stuff…conga-style slapping he would do on the bass—all of it really opened up my mind to the possibilities of the bass being more of a lead instrument than just laying down the bass line.”

Smallie says he was influenced by “Birdland” and “Teentown” early on. However, “‘A Remark You Made’ would definitely be one of my top three,” he says. “To this day, it is one of my favorite ballads of all time. That one definitely grabbed me. And I always loved ‘Port of Entry.’ … It reminds me of an Indian raga feel in the composition where it would start off real mellow, real slow, low dynamics and they would build and by the end of it. It was a real frenzy.

“When I talk to musicians,” he continues, “no matter what instruments they play, there is an incredible amount of respect and reverence for Jaco Pastorius. Most musicians have such a high regard for his musicianship, his compositions, his talent, and his fire and tenacity in playing the instrument. He was obviously a great innovator. I think most people, especially these days, would say it was an incredible life that was cut too short.”

JJ Grey and Mofro will be touring the United States and Europe this fall and have begun pre-production on their next studio album, which will be released in 2013.

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