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The Jaco Pastorius Big Band

The Word Is Out!

(Heads Up; US: 28 Mar 2006; UK: 24 Apr 2006)

How conservative a musician was Jaco Pastorius? I suppose any jazz fan would be bowled over by his solo performance of Charlie Parker’s near-masterpiece “Donna Lee”, possibly the most startling recording played on BBC Radio 3’s Pastorius series a couple of years ago. You can look up the range of his musical accomplishments in various reference sources, but one suggestion comes to mind in respect to this set, and the unenthusiastic press his own big band recordings received. Is it possible that rather than having achieved any new, individual or breakthrough vision of music for a large ensemble, he was simply referring back to the big band music in which he started, the band under the leadership of Peter Graves as well as the big band music which had interested him early on—and that what he was able to achieve with his Word of Mouth big band was only a sort of half-way house?


“Dania” is a stomper. It’s also extremely generous, given that the arranger of this Pastorius number—and the first soloist—has his own latest and related big band CD just out: tenor saxophonist and longtime leader Bob Mintzer. He’s been interested in developing music in both big band and jazz-funk small group instrumentation, but in “Dania” the obvious thing is transcribing the phrasing that Pastorius achieved on his fretless electric bass. The third solo in this excellent performance, by Gerald Beasley on electric bass, is no more and of course no less on the same lines of phrasing as the preceding solos by Mintzer—storming!—and by the usually noteworthy Randy Brecker on his own terrific trumpet solo.


Big band recordings with a starry harmonica soloist are of course even rarer than harmonica players of Toots Thielemanns’ class. No complaints about his solo, and Jason Carder’s trumpet solo is most commendable as well, as is the transition passage from that back to the harmonica. Unfortunately, with some exceptions the arrangement isn’t up to the same standard. Pat Metheny’s “Sirabhorn” (arranged Dan Bonsanti) opens with the flutes, piccolo etc., cited as played by the reedmen in alliance with Mike Stern’s guitar. Before and especially during Stern’s chimy guitar solo, guest Mark Egan plays some contrabass tuba things on his electric bass. Mike Levine moves to electric keyboard in order to accompany Egan’s bass solo, but the ending is on the same conventional side as quite a lot more here.


Pastorius’ own arrangement of his “Three Views of a Secret” is nice enough in its rearrangement by Larry Warrilow, with pastoral, nursery rhyme or Lennon-McCartney elements added. The opening is said to have been provided on solo bass by Oteil Burbridge, but it sounds like guitar to me. Ed Calle’s soprano lifts the performance, but there’s still something missing from the orchestration. The Lennon-McCartney “Blackbird” precedes and segues into Pastorius’s “Word of Mouth” in another not-exactly-tonally-adventurous arrangement, again from Bonsanti. Proceedings are again led by the spiky soprano of Ed Calle, with tightly muted trumpets and fleet solo work from guest bassist Richard Bona; this is before Peter Erskine, guest and always a welcome drummer, lays about himself. To call this largely a very good in parts set seems obvious from the effect of Arturo Sandoval instantly in and on the boil, as he remains through his short closing solo.


There’s more Calle soprano on “Good Morning, Anya”, which also features Bona on bass, Erskine again, and Othello Molineaux playing Caribbean steel drums. It really does sound like more Beatles music for big band, but the vocalise in the arrangement is perhaps too poppish a suggestion of the heavenly choir. “River People” begins with a burst on keyboard, some electric bass over handclapping, and more (to be frank) fairly stock scoring with the synthesizer in the band. Again, the tune is good in parts: Randy Brecker gets startlingly hot, playing above the big band funk, and the band’s non-guest guitarist, Randy Bernsen, also achieves some heat above the routine brass and bass acrobatics of this, another Warrilow reorchestration of a Pastorius original.


The closer, “Reza”, has been reorchestrated by Peter Graves as a band setting, not exactly re-set, of a solo by Pastorius isolated from a tape of a live performance. This is definitely my preferred track, even considering the otherwise-standout opener. The yet again extremely interesting Robert Thomas Jr. is on hand drums, and Bernsen at times doubles what Pastorius played on the gig whose tape supplied his line here: but above all the sheer focus of Pastorius’s electric bass playing gives the music a sharpness of timing beyond anything else on the set. The band has to listen to him and to follow him (who went ahead with his track on this recording twenty five years before all the others), and there’s no sense of anybody wondering what the bassist-composer might have done if his life had been less disordered, less chaotic, less short and tragic. It’s all too clear what he was on about in “Reza”.


It is also clear what scale of special contribution a virtuoso performer on electric bass might make to a conventional big band. The drafting in for this CD of a whole range of guest bassists doesn’t, however, work the oracle.


Apart from odd solo passages which standout in their immediate settings, the best things here are the two tracks that most nearly transcribe Pastorius’ own playing. I suspect there might have been an album or just possibly two to be had on the sort of reinterpretive lines of the Thad Jones memorial set, issued not long since. The present venture with Peter Graves, which uses a standard conservative big band such as Jaco Pastorius only lived long enough to start with, and apparently hoping for a string of albums, may well be overambitious in qualitative terms, with the end result of diluting Pastorius’ music. Whatever the quality of his best music, it will only stretch so far.

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