The Electric-Bass Wizardry of Jaco Pastorius

A new documentary remembers legendary bassist-composer Jaco Pastorius.

by Jim Fusilli, Wall Street Journal
December 1, 2015

Jaco Pastorius is still the greatest electric bass player, and evidence to support that claim—one he was known to make himself—is presented in the new documentary “Jaco,” available now on DVD, Blu-ray and via streaming services. Produced by Robert Trujillo, best known as Metallica’s bassist, “Jaco” celebrates a brief but remarkable career, but also considers how Pastorius’s short tumultuous life unraveled so thoroughly.

Pastorius‘s daring, technically precise electric-bass playing revealed his vision for the instrument that went beyond its traditional supportive position into an expanded role in the ensemble via a taste for counterpoint, the pursuit of melody and a readiness to cross genres. But his reputation was also earned by his compositions that packaged a similarly delightful blend. He issued three studio albums during his lifetime and formed several novel bands under the Word of Mouth banner; energized Weather Report when he joined the group in 1976; and was partner to Joni

Mitchell on her greatest recordings. In 1987, after a night of not-atypical misadventure, Pastorius, who suffered from bipolar disorder exacerbated by drug abuse, was killed by a bouncer who beat him mercilessly. The bassist-composer would have turned 64 this week.

“Jaco” was brought to life through Mr. Trujillo’s considerable financial investment and sheer will, overcoming objections by members of Pastorius’s fractured family, the resignation of the documentary’s original director, Stephen Kijak, and numerous rough cuts that pleased few. Two of the film’s key participants, Ms. Mitchell and bassist Jerry Jemmott, didn’t join in until the project had been under way for years. Mr. Jemmott, the R&B and soul legend, agreed to interviews in which he contextualized Pastorius’s reinvention of the electric bass and gave witness to his psychological and emotional decline. He informs the narrative, which found a better flow when editor Paul Marchand took over as director.

Mr. Trujillo lassoed for interviews bassists Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Geddy Lee of Rush and Bootsy Collins, as well as Pastorius colleagues Peter Erskine, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, among others. But “Jaco” is at its brightest when it reveals Pastorius not merely as a musician, but as a moon-faced, mischievous child and childlike man who blossomed through dedication to what would be his life’s mission. Grainy home movies and the testimony of musicians who knew him on the way up provide warmth and context. To see him with Weather Report or Ms. Mitchell is to remember his impeccable taste, the exquisite tone of his bass and his natural effervescence.

Then there is evidence of his decline: cringe-worthy videos in which he is incapable of performing to his standards or is muttering and slurring his discontent, the effects of his drug use on display. He had been overwhelmed by setbacks that included the dissolution of two marriages; the perceived rejection by Joe Zawinul, the blunt, masterly musician who brought Pastorius into Weather Report; and clashes with executives at a record label that gave him a rock star’s contract. Artistic disasters mount; exasperated, former musical allies write him off; drug buddies in New York form a new peer group—Pastorius, some musicians insist, didn’t use drugs, including alcohol, before his career faltered—and before long, he is unemployable and homeless, living in a park not far from where he was raised in South Florida. All of this is unpleasant, but necessary to absorb to understand the arc of his life.

The recently released “Jaco” (Legacy) and Weather Report’s “The Legendary Live Tapes: 1978-1981” (Columbia) verify Pastorius’s musical gifts. The former, the film’s soundtrack, contains vintage Pastorius recordings and covers by hip-hop’s Tech N9ne, the acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela and the all-star group Mass Mental with Flea, Mr. Trujillo and Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins. The Weather Report boxed set includes 28 previously unreleased tracks culled from bootlegs and soundboard recordings, and they are a revelation, presenting the band’s performances without edits or overdubs. Pastorius displays his virtuosity and embrace of risk, but also his ability to dominate while in the bassist’s traditional role—often during the same high-octane performance.

As for the documentary, Pastorius’s tale of triumph and tragedy is well told and compelling. To a degree, he was engaged in a slow-motion suicide. There are no satisfying answers to the question of why such beauty ended in abject sorrow.

Several interviewees intimate that Pastorius lacked a support system, but in the year prior to his death, he spent seven weeks in a psychiatric unit at the Bellevue Hospital Center in New York; ultimately, he rejected its counsel. His son John was struck by the absurdity of his father living in a South Florida park while family was nearby. By the time he suffered the savage beating that killed him, the Jaco Pastorius his fans adored was long gone. But, as “Jaco” demonstrates, at full capacity there was no one like him.

News article originally published at Wall Street Journal.

Researchers Observe Effects of Art on the Brain

They hope to discover how our brains combine sensory impressions with memory and emotion to form judgments

by Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal
December 7, 2015

When it comes to art, beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but some scientists now are looking for it in bursts of brain waves.

Seeking a biological basis for our response to art, researchers from the University of Houston recorded the electrical brain activity from 431 gallery visitors last year as they explored an exhibit of works by conceptual artist Dario Robleto at the Menil Collection, near downtown Houston. In the low-voltage sizzle of so much neural buzz, the scientists are trying to find how our brains mix sensory impressions of color, texture and shape with memory, meaning, and emotion into an aesthetic judgment of artworks that, at their best, can be both universal and intensely personal.

“This is about emotion, about brain patterns, about individuality,” said university computer engineer Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, who is conducting the research funded by the National Science Foundation. “We don’t know the neural basis for art. The hope is that there will be a common element.”

His brain wave experiments, conducted at three Houston museums over the past year or so, are part of a growing scientific exploration of the human preoccupation with art, with potential implications for worldlier endeavors. Experts say our aesthetic judgments go well beyond paintings and sculpture to influence whom we find attractive, which designs and products we prefer and how we respond to abstract communications such as music or mathematics.

“It is one critical aspect of how people make choices,” said Anjan Chatterjee, a University of Pennsylvania neurologist and author of “The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art,” who studies how brain damage has affected working artists. “It is mysterious as to why it is such a big part of our lives.”

To be sure, it’s not likely that brain scanners, neural probes or brain wave measurements will solve the mysteries of art any time soon. There are too many variables of style, genre, period, culture, materials and subject. Aesthetic preferences are just too intensely subjective. “The art you like is the art I hate,” said New York University neuroscientist Edward Vessel, who studies aesthetics and how people are moved by visual experiences.

But researchers are starting to glean hints of the biochemical processes at work.

As an art critic, the brain is quick to judge. Shown an artwork for the first time, be it a landscape painting, a portrait or an abstract rendering of almost any style, people usually make a snap judgment of its aesthetic appeal. Brain-wave recordings suggest that the neural calculation takes 200 to 330 milliseconds, about as long as a photo flash.

“You experience the appeal of art, and you know right away whether you like it or not,” said Dr. Contreras-Vidal.

Gazing at Van Gogh’s dynamic swirling brush strokes evokes a sense of movement that activates portions of the brain’s visual motor cortex, according to brain scanning experiments conducted in 2012 at Boston College. In a similar way, a portrait activates the part of the fusiform gyrus area in the brain that is responsive to faces; the prettier the face in the portrait, the stronger the neural response. A landscape painting usually activates a portion of the parahippocampal gryus associated with places, according to a 2007 brain imaging study at the University of Southern California and New York University.

Art can stir emotions at the level of synapses. The “delicate sadness” of a mask used in traditional Japanese Noh theater activates the right amygdala, a small, almond-shaped brain structure associated with fear, sadness and other negative emotions, researchers at Kyoto University in Japan recently discovered. The pleasure at viewing a beautiful object appears to trigger the brain’s reward center.

Even so, those reflexive neural responses are colored by our expectations and experience. Generally, people rate abstract art as more attractive when told it is from a museum rather than generated by computer. “If people are told it is hanging in a gallery, they rate it as more appealing,” Dr. Chatterjee said. “They aren’t being polite. Their brains respond differently.”

In his brain scanning studies, Dr. Vessel at NYU tested people and their responses to 109 museum artworks from the 15th to the 20th centuries, encompassing Western and Eastern art as well as representational and abstract styles. Although the reactions were very personal, he found two neural networks are usually in play: One appears to respond to almost every painting, and one activates only in response to works that most strongly moved the viewer.

The most powerfully engaging works of art appeared to trigger brain regions in the frontal cortex that are involved in introspective thought, as well as nearby regions usually directed at more outward matters. The two areas usually don’t activate simultaneously. “That is a very rare state,” Dr. Vessel said. “It resonates in the shape of your mind.”

All these various art-appreciation experiments, though, have been conducted within the confines of a massive and very loud medical brain scanner.

In Houston, Dr. Contreras-Vidal is eager to test neural responses to art as people move freely at their own pace through a gallery. He uses portable electroencephalography (EEG) equipment, including a set of scalp electrodes that volunteers wear like a hat, to detect high-speed changes in neural electrical activity. “You can use EEG as you move or you dance or walk outdoors to view a piece of art,” he said.

With this technique, he has turned brain science into performance art. Working with the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston this fall, he has been staging his experiments in front of an audience.

Recently, he arranged for three local artists to play a drawing game on a stage. They took turns creating an image, while their brain waves and body movements were recorded. Each 45-minute performance generated more than half a terabyte of data, roughly equivalent to 200,000 digital song recordings.

All told this year, he has recorded brain waves from 700 men, women and children. He plans to gather such information from thousands more. “Art is becoming a Big Data problem,” he said.

News article originally published at Wall Street Journal.