Bass Giant Jaco Pastorius Is Remembered in 'Jaco'

Image from Jaco: Original Soundtrack

If the current generation of upcoming musicians isn't aware of Jaco Pastorius, they should be. This must-see rock doc. cements that matter deeply in our hearts


Director: Paul Marchand, Stephen Kijak
Cast: Robert Trujillo, Flea, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Peter Erskine, Wayne Shorter, Jery Jemmott, Geddy Lee.
Distributor: MVD
Rated: Not rated
US DVD release date: 2015-11-27

Jaco Pastorius’ name is synonymous with three things: Bass, innovation and tragedy and all three of those come together in this new film directed by Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak which reinvigorates the biographical rock doc. The main narrative opens during one of the more troubled periods of Pastorius’ life: He was down and out, living in New York City and unable to hold down the important gigs that had come his way so effortlessly during the '70s.

It’s the early '80s. His days with Weather Report and a loving first marriage are behind him. Gone, too, is his longstanding dedication to sobriety.

Brought into a studio for what was essentially an instructional video (released as Jaco Pastorius: Modern Electric Bass) he plays as beautifully as ever but he’s no longer the exotically handsome man who’d revolutionized his instrument less than a decade before. It would be Jaco’s last decade on earth and in truth the hardest times were just ahead.

From there, we go back to Jaco’s early life in South Florida, where he was raised in a musical household and showed promise as versatile musician early on. Within a few years he was gigging regularly, eventually coming to the attention of Blood, Sweat and Tears drummer Bobby Colomby and, shortly thereafter, the world.

He joined Weather Report (he was already in the habit of introducing himself as the greatest bass player in the world), contributing “Barbary Coast” and making plans for his 1976 solo debut, which featured “Come On, Come Over”, “Donna Lee” and “Portrait of Tracy”. He’d already recorded with Paul Bley and Pat Metheny in 1974 but this was the ground shaking moment the music world had been waiting for.

His rise, from there, was meteoric. Not only was he playing fretless bass (allowing for a great lyricism than most were used to hearing on an electric four string), he was playing with feel and dynamics that were beyond what most were used to hearing from a bassist. Yes, there was Ron Carter, Jerry Jemmott (who appears here), Stanley Clarke and others but what Pastorius did was something else entirely. It was something that, as Sting says, that recalibrated the world of every bass player on the planet.

He was also an ace composer, as evidenced on his debut album and his work with Weather Report, a band he continued to rack up recording credits with for the rest of the decade. Songs such as “Teen Town”, “Havona”, “Punk Jazz” and “Three Views Of A Secret” standing as material that has yet to be surpassed by a composer or player of this kind. But his time in Weather Report was marred by a tumultuous relationship with Zawinul who was, to put it kindly, dismissive. Chalk it up to jealousy or the kind of tamping down that mentors are prone to doing but it no doubt had a traumatic impact on the young musician.

In early 1979, while performing at the Havana Jam as a member of the Trio of Doom with Tony Williams and John McLaughlin, he began to unravel, performing in a fashion that friends say was uncharacteristic of him. In the years that were to come there would be bad behavior (Joni Mitchell, with whom he created some of his most sublime bass lines, attests to this), drugs, drink and a debilitating mental illness that was about to truly show its deepest depths.

Among the darker moments were a sessions for Pastorius’ brilliant, ambitious and forward-thinking Word of Mouth LP, which failed to meet commercial expectations as it met an audience that was not ready for it. The maestro was of course devastated and was soon wandering the streets of New York City, playing for change and engaging in bizarre behavior that put him at odds with the world around him.

We know this story of course and how it’s going to end but the filmmakers remain one step ahead of us, taking twists and turns that capture our attention and make us forget that we don’t necessarily know where the story is going. For a moment, as the third act approaches, we even have hope that maybe somehow we’ve been able to unwind time and bring Pastorius back from beyond. It is, of course, not to be.

Much has been made of Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo’s involvement in the film. Trujillo produced the film and appears onscreen (in moderation) and he is absolutely necessary to having the story told. Pastorius was a jazz player but he set the rock world on its ear: Without Jaco, there would not be Flea, Sting would doubtless be a vastly different player and Geddy Lee, among others would not have been able to carry the instrument as far into this century as they have. It's important to the survival of the music that it finds a popular audience and Jaco’s music truly transcends those boundaries, something that we’re reminded of again and again watching this film.

But this isn’t an endless parade of rock ‘n’ rollers. Those who knew Pastorius best, including his children, bandmates Peter Erskine and Wayne Shorter and Colomby provide depth and emotion to the story. In the end, Jaco is a deeply moving film, filled with breathtaking music, humor and an arc worthy of an old-time epic.

It’s worth sticking around through the credits as a host of name bass players provide their testimonials to Jaco’s genius and many more appear in extended interviews on the bonus disc. This is not-to-be-missed for music lovers of any age who are interested in any genre imaginable. It may make you cry but it may also make you reach for your instrument and practice deep into the night, maybe into the next day.

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