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Jaco Pastorius, Jazz’s last great innovator

Monday, 28 September 2015 11:30

A favorite parlor game among jazz journalists involves debating the question, Who was the last great innovator on his or her instrument?

Bonus-round answers, rendered Jeopardy-style, usually include John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Ornette Coleman, with an occasional Billie Holiday thrown in to fuel the debate.

The answer, of course, is none of the above, with supporting evidence provided via this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, witnessed by a group of adventurists on safari with JAZZ.FM91. They might affirm - after experiencing a big band and a documentary film - that jazz’s last great innovator was Jaco Pastorius, an electric bassist from the ‘70s and ‘80s whose arc of musical influence included both meteoric flight and spectacular flameout.

Jaco was a charismatic, badass musician with technique and expressiveness beyond the ken of earthly bassists. His contribution to jazz is regarded as bedrock - he recast the bass as a lead voice, even while fulfilling a support role within the band. Yet his story is ultimately tragic. He was saddled with mental illness, driven to self-destruction and he routinely displayed erratic behaviors interpreted at the time as quirky or idiosyncratic. (An indictment of us, to be sure, and our fossilized views of brain disease...) His death at age 35,was a seismic event - a shock, but not a surprise.

Jaco’s great canvas was Weather Report, the pioneering group fronted by Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul. Together, they married the traditional elements of jazz improvisation with the electrified energy of rock, crafting a sound and approach that stand as a developmental blueprint in popular music. The primacy of Weather Report owes much to Jaco’s mastery.

In the years following Weather Report, Jaco led his own big band, Word of Mouth, which proved a legendary aggregate, as much for its tours (with trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxist Bob Mintzer, drummer Peter Erskine, et al) as for Jaco’s public unraveling.

Two stages at this year’s fest aimed the spotlight on his story. The first featured a big band spearheaded by Grammy-winning arranger Vince Mendoza, who was assisted in part by Mintzer, Erskine, percussionist Alex Acuna, bassists Will Lee, Christian McBride and Jaco’s son, Felix Pastorius. The project originated with the WDR Orchestra in Cologne, Germany, then made its debut just prior to the Monterey appearance.
Mendoza had a tall order: Arrrange the music artfully, utilizing a bassist who could read parts while referencing Jaco's instrumental presence. Lee and McBride were strong in their roles - dutiful, exacting - yet Felix provided the evening’s star turn. Playing the instrument owned and played by his father, he was assertive, robust, authentic.

But even amidst the solos and step-outs of Felix and others (notably Mintzer), the echoes that continue to resonate celebrate Jaco the composer. Mendoza wisely emphasized Jaco’s lasting contributions to the jazz repertoire - blue-chip melodies like "Liberty City," "Three Views of a Secret" and "Teen Town” - reminding all that the “World’s Greatest Bassist” (as Jaco himself proclaimed) was a consummate musician.

The next day Monterey screened a preview of “Jaco,” a documentary film produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo. It featured a cast of talking heads sharing remembrances of Jaco and assessing his place in jazz history. Accompanying home and performance footage, we heard testimony from Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Carlos Santana and Bootsy Collins, among others. They helped trace Jaco’s rise and fall - his childhood in Florida, his stints with Wayne Cochran and Joni Mitchell, his complicated father-son relationship with Zawinul (a psychological study worthy of Arthur Miller), and finally his sad descent from madness to death.

Monterey’s thematic tie-in between performance and film made this year’s festival special, even while the weekend featured performances from jazz stalwarts, Dianne Reeves, Chris Botti, Snarky Puppy and Geri Allen, who celebrated Errol Garner’s classic recording, “Concert By The Sea,” recorded in the mist of Monterey 60 years ago.

That mist stays with us still, rich with the history of the region’s music and the legendary figures central to the story of jazz. Jaco is in there. The Monterey Jazz Festival cast him up-front, center - an opportune piece of programming enjoyed by many, including the lucky members of JAZZ.FM91 on safari.

altJeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and Jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of Jazz musicians.

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