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.