Behind The Beat
5:00 am
Tue July 1, 2014

How Jaco Pastorius Launched A One-Man Revolution On The Bass

You probably know “Birdland” by the group Weather Report well enough to sing along with the melody.

What you may not know is the melody is being played on an electric bass by Jaco Pastorius, the subject of today’s discussion.  

About the time Jaco joined Weather Report in 1976, he also released a solo album that displayed his virtuosity and his vision.

He didn’t just raise the bar for the bass; he revolutionized the instrument, which was apparent from the first song of his debut album. Here’s Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee.”

It’s easy to hear that Jaco was an extraordinarily gifted musician, but talent wasn’t the only thing that set him apart.

He was basically a one-man revolution on the bass. He was self-taught, he had no real predecessors, and because of that amazing talent, he had no peers. He was out there by himself. Take a listen to the 1977 song "Havona,” which Jaco performed with Weather Report.

We’ve pretty clearly demonstrated that Jaco could play really fast — he was a total virtuoso. But he also had a lot of heart and a tone that was specific to him.

In an effort to make the electric bass more like a stand-up bass, Jaco removed the metal frets from the neck of his bass, which allowed him to get a tone more like a trombone or a French horn. You can really hear that in this Weather Report track “A Remark You Made.”

He’s made some incredible music as a band leader and as a member of Weather Report. But he also played remarkably on Joni Mitchell’s album “Hejira.” On the track “Refuge of the Roads,” Jaco wove his bass in and around Mitchell’s voice.

It’s so beautiful, the way Jaco’s bass kind of soars above and around that melody. In essence, Jaco didn’t separate the bass and the melody; his genius was that he actually combined them, giving the electric bass a new role as a lead instrument.

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