Big phat basslines
The first time I heard John Francis Anthony “Jaco” Pastorius III was when a friend handed me a pre-recorded Columbia Records cassette called Black Market by the jazz-rock fusion band, Weather Report. It was the late 1970s and my friend, a maverick sort of a guy who also was a classmate, predicted while handing over the tape that the bass guitarist on at least two tracks on the album would be like no one I’d ever heard before.
He was right, of course. I hadn’t heard the bass guitar played the way Jaco Pastorius played it on that album, particularly on Barbary Coast, a track that was also credited to the talented young bassist, and on Cannon Ball.
On Black Market and during much of his short-lived (I’ll come to that in a bit) career, Pastorius played the fretless Fender bass guitar. A tough instrument to play, Pastorius did so with effortless ease. His melodies (yes, on the bass) at the upper end of the sound spectrum and his funky style added a dimension to Weather Report’s jazz-heavy oeuvre that, at least to my mind, made the band a magnet for those who otherwise didn’t dig jazz that much.
There is a story, probably true, about how Pastorius joined Weather Report, a band led by keyboardist Joe Zawinul and the legendary sax player, Wayne Shorter. After one of their gigs Pastorius went up to Zawinul, who was already a venerable musician, having played with Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis, introducing himself “as the greatest bass player in the world” and offering to play with the band. After dismissing him initially, Zawinul is believed to have offered him a session or two. Quite clearly, Pastorius impressed Zawinul and Shorter as the bassist went on to play with the band till the early 1980s.
Besides Black Market, one of Weather Report’s finest recordings, you can hear Pastorius’ big phat bass lines on Heavy Weather (1977), Mr. Gone (1978), 8:30 (1979) and Night Passage (1980). I’d nudge you towards Black Market and Heavy Weather. Both those albums ought to find space in anybody’s music collection. While all of this was going on, Pastorius had a solo career and also assembled a big band called Word of Mouth. I recently found another Pastorius album, Live in Italy, which was recorded in 1986 and has, besides Pastorius, Bireli Lagrene on guitar and Thomas Borocz on drums. It has versions of Teen Town, Black Market and, best of all, a funky version of I Shot the Sheriff. Not to be missed.
Sadly, Pastorius, who suffered from bipolar disorder, exacerbated by his drug and alcohol habit, fell on hard times, sometimes living on the streets for prolonged periods. In 1987, at just 35, he got into a fight with a nightclub bouncer in Florida and succumbed to his injuries, a sad end for a massively talented musician. In a horrible coincidence, a few years later, I heard that my maverick friend, the one who had introduced me to Pastorius way back in the 1970s, was found dead in a field somewhere, his body bearing mysterious injuries. No one still knows what happened to him.
I enjoy a good phat bass line and I can think of several (besides Jaco) bassists whose bass lines I love listening to. On top of the list is the eccentric Les Claypool who plays the electric bass with slaps, strums and delicate pickings, producing a sound that is unique to him. Claypool, best known for his work with the funk-rock band, Primus, also has played with his band called Colonel Les Claypool’s Flying Frog Brigade, collaborated with Phish’s lead guitarist Trey Anastasio and Police’s Stewart Copeland in a short-lived band called Oysterhead, besides several solo projects. As much a treat to watch in concert as he is to listen to, Claypool features quite high up on my list of favourite bassists.
I have three more bassists that turn me on and tempt me to tune out of everything else and just listen to them. In no particular order here they are. Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead. Trained in classical music, Lesh plays a cerebral bass line that made as much of a difference to the Dead’s music as Jerry Garcia’s lead guitar did and Donna Godchaux’s vocals didn’t (sorry, couldn’t help but take that swipe). John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. Jones played the bass, the mandolin and the keyboards (you can also add the ukulele, sitar, cello, harp and lead guitar to that) and is what I’d consider a musician’s musician. Don’t listen to him on the supergroup, Them Crooked Vultures, whose eponymous debut album is underwhelming, but check out all of the back catalogue from Led Zep. This time just listen to the bass lines.
The third bassist who never fails to pump my mood up is Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools. A big, affable man, Schools, unusually for a bassist, uses a variety of effects—pedals, phrase samplers, delays and even a synth. His characteristic thunderous sound is at once refined as it is explosive and much of Panic’s, typical sound is because of him. What’s more, if you’ve ever watched him play you’ll see that he’s having enormous fun. And, as everyone knows, if you’re having so much fun at work, you must be rather good at it.