At the tender age of 35 Jaco Pastorius died. He left behind one of the strongest legacies in the world of jazz and inspired legions of bassists. Maybe it’s a bit contrived and corny, but it’s absolutely true. What Jaco did for the electric bass is nearly unparalleled. It wasn’t just his spectacular technical skill that drove him to the top, it was also his soulful playing and the ability to smoothly flow from hyper complex to tranquil. 1976 was the watershed year for Jaco when his self-titled debut was released, but two years before, at 22, Jaco and his band recorded The Criteria Sessions. A set of 11 tracks ranging from just under two minutes to nearly a quarter of an hour and swinging from cool jazz to avant-garde noodlings. The sessions were led, but not dominated by, Jaco’s playing. The set of songs here are a fantastic reminder of Jaco’s raw talent, but it also holds spectacular performances from his band.
These sessions were reproduced, in part, by Metallica’s Robert Trujillo. As strange as that sounds at first, Trujillo is obviously an admirer of Jaco. The mixing and production is sharp and allows for Jaco’s bass to be heard in every nook of its range. Jaco plays a rapid arpeggio on “Pans” and he acts more as a side man for the kaleidoscoping steel drums, but the percussive accents that Jaco puts down come through clearly. Jaco’s trademark harmonic bass playing comes through perfectly as well. These sessions don’t hold an early version of “Portraits of Tracy”, but Jaco’s transitions from bouncy to legato on “Balloon Song” are captured, even over the clattering percussion. With so much praise heaped on Jaco’s more languid work it’s easy to forget that his fusion work is among the best. It’s some strange twist of fate that Rush’s debut album came out the same year that these sessions were being recorded. Both Geddy and Jaco used Fender Jazz basses and Rush songs like “YYZ” show a deep appreciation for Jaco’s bass playing. Jaco’s work is fluid throughout the sessions; it has a machine gun like speed and a more percussive tone on “Time Lapse”, but just the song before his Fender holds down the record’s smoothest groove.
This record’s foundation, ironically enough, isn’t Jaco’s bass. It’s the rest of the players here that ground the work. Jaco can pull off entire songs by himself, but the eerie keyboards by Alex Darqui and well-crafted drums form something for Jaco’s bass to play off of. “Continuum” is a great example. At its core, it’s a bass solo, but the watery piano work, along with Bob Economou’s atmospheric drums chiming in, make the high bass work even more impressive. Those odd sounds float in and out of the background perfectly with Jaco taking time to flash his talent before fading into the hazy production behind him. It’s not just a release for bass enthusiasts. It’s a record for jazz lovers in general, if you want to hear a master just before his prime, or simply want to hear a handful of jazz-subgenres played in excellent fashion these sessions are well worth your while.