The Essential Jaco Pastorius
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2007, Volume 14, #7
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Sun July 29, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
It’s hard to find a jazz fan or a bass player who is ambivalent about the music of Jaco Pastorius. An aggressive and egoistical performer, he has left behind a legacy that still is capable of igniting arguments, a full 20 years after his death. There are those who speak his name in hushed reverential tones and leave it at that — as if the truth of his greatest accomplishments requires no explanation or defense. Others can’t stand his playing, finding it overly busy and believing he reveled in virtuosity for its own sake. Early in his career, Pastorius defined himself as the "world’s greatest bass player," and he spent his all-too-brief life trying to prove it. Fusing a generous selection of cuts from his two solo albums with an array of carefully chosen moments from his work with Weather Report, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, and Joni Mitchell, The Essential Jaco Pastorius should allow listeners to decide for themselves.
Unfortunately, many of the selections that are compiled on The Essential Jaco Pastorius — especially those from Pastorius’ work with Weather Report — have not aged very well. The compositions frequently sound like the kind of argument where the loudest person wins. The notes fly so thick and fast that it’s often hard to grasp the ideas that are being explored. Weather Report’s fabled players are all highly skilled, but they beat every theme into a bloody pulp, until there’s no life left in them. Individual sections of the music dance and sway, but then a kind of amphetamine sludge inevitably pours into the mix. The result is that grace and poetry are smothered.
A few of the tracks — such as Portrait of Tracy and Donna Lee, both of which are from Pastorius’ solo debut — show a level of warmth and humanity that is missing from much of the material on The Essential Jaco Pastorius. Here, in a setting where all of the individual parts are not drowned out, there is room to feel the depth and tone of Pastorius’ playing. Some of his most celebrated work was undoubtedly the trio of albums and live shows he performed with Joni Mitchell. A sampling of their collaborative pursuits, including Hejira and the stellar The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines, demonstrates how much rhythm and swing Pastorius was capable of mustering. With Mitchell, he struck a perfect balance between melody and outside exploration that he never again managed to achieve.
To be fair, jazz fusion is an acquired taste, and Jaco Pastorius embraced, to the fullest possible extent, the excesses offered by its intellectually and musically dense form. There is no doubt that Pastorius mastered his instrument at a very young age. It’s equally undeniable that he had to go far afield in order to find new musical challenges for himself. Still, like guitarist John McLaughlin and the countless others who have shared his musical ethos, Pastorius often plays in a way that leaves very little room for the listener to breathe. Every phrase is jam-packed with ideas that are executed at lightning speed. The resulting question that often comes to mind is this: What end are these explorations hoping to achieve?
Dexterity and virtuosity are important, of course, but as Bach demonstrated with his solo cello sonatas, the most technically challenging pieces are intended to be exercises, not music that is offered up for public consumption. Often, Pastorius’ work sounds like devilishly clever and tremendously difficult warm-up routines rather than finished compositions. While the 20th Century proved to listeners that there are many other virtues in music aside from melody, Jaco Pastorius was no Igor Stravinsky or John Coltrane. Both of these pioneers knew when to pull back. They knew when to leave breathing room. Had Pastorius survived longer, he undoubtedly would have transcended the limitations of his chosen musical form. Sadly, there is no way of knowing where his creativity would have taken him. Instead, we are left to ponder the riddle of how to appreciate the music he left behind when a 21st Century context has yet to be found that makes sense of the appeal of ’70s fusion.
The Essential Jaco Pastorius is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box