Jaco

Posted on November 21, 2016

About my ’76 interview with Jaco Pastorius. Written for Guitar & Bass, 2016.  

JACO PASTORIUS RELEASED HIS SOLO ALBUM almost exactly forty years ago, and it changed the way bassists thought about playing. I interviewed him back in ’76, just at the time of the record’s release. He was on a British tour with Weather Report, who he’d joined that year, and he wasn’t feeling too good. Turns out, he’d somehow imagined I was interviewing him for a US musicians-union magazine, which was the reason he’d reluctantly agreed to chat. In fact, it was only the second interview I’d ever done, as a rookie journalist on a UK musicians magazine. I was directed to The Hotel Room Of Jaco Pastorius. He looked grumpy. He looked even grumpier when I told him I wasn’t interested in his union membership.

Every bass player I knew at the time had heard the Jaco record and every bass player I knew was amazed and intrigued by the remarkable sounds and techniques on display, especially the fretless and the harmonics. I remember, for example, Neil Murray – this was a good few years before he joined Whitesnake – raving about the harmonics, notably on ‘Portrait Of Tracy’. But if one track defined the Jaco fretless sound, it was the dazzling double-tracked ’Continuum’. Jaco was by no means the first electric bassist to go fretless. His achievement was to popularise the fretless bass by bringing it right up front, playing it virtuosically as a featured instrument.

Jaco wanted to have the Olympics from Montreal on the TV while we talked. He got the set working and flicked from cricket to the test card. I explained the state of British broadcasting, ’76 style: just the three channels. He looked grumpier still. I asked about ‘Continuum’. “I played the whole tune twice, note for note,” he explained, immediately cheerier. “People think I’ve got all kinds of electronic gear, but I don’t use any pedals, no electronics: it’s all in my hands. I wanted that tune to sound like a couple of guys singing.”

I couldn’t help but notice a huge silver flightcase in the corner. Could we have a look? Inside were Jaco’s two Jazz Basses, and he got them out, a fretted ’60 and a de-fretted ’62. “I’ve been using both these basses about five, six years,” he said with pride, playing a jolly little tune on the fretless, acoustically, a further sign the grumpiness had evaporated. “One’s had the frets taken off when I bought it – it looked like someone had taken a hatchet to it, so I had to fix it up. But I’ve always played a fretless, and I’ve had a few others that I’ve had to take the frets out of myself.” He played the fretless ’62 on most of the pieces on the solo album. “Of course, there’s things that work better with fretted bass, like playing lots of chords, whereas with the fretless it’s very difficult to play more than two-note chords in tune – I can do it, I do it a couple of times on the record, but it’s a stretch.” He told me he liked the metal “ring” of the frets for some things but that overall he preferred the woody feel and sound of the fretless.

Of course, I couldn’t know then that Jaco would leave Weather Report about five years later, that he would make some career-high contributions to Joni Mitchell’s Hejira and Mingus studio albums and the live Shadows And Light, or that his life would be cut short in September 1987, when he died in tragic circumstances at the age of just 35. As I got up to leave that gloomy hotel room, I threw in a cliched question. Any advice for budding musicians, Jaco? “The biggest problem with music today is that ninety-nine percent of the players have no roots at all,” he replied. “People learn ten notes of music and they think they’re musicians: it’s a real joke. They don’t feel it, they don’t know it – they don’t even have the potential to feel it. That’s why I waited around, you know? I waited a long time. A tree never grows until it’s got some roots already spreading out underneath. Then it’s going to really grow.”