Captured at the height of their strength as a live unit, Truth, Liberty & Soul proves an excellent showcase for both Jaco Pastorius and the Word of Mouth Big Band.
For a good reason, Jaco Pastorius is almost exclusively thought of as a bassist. Without a doubt one of, if not the most influential electric bass players of all time, Pastorius was quick to make a name for himself with his lightning quick lines, impeccable melodicism and timing and flashy personality. But what often gets left out of the equation -- and unfairly so -- was his skills as a composer of harmonically complex, progressive arrangements and original compositions. By the time the live performance that makes up Truth, Liberty & Soul was recorded, Pastorius had shifted his focus from virtuosity on the bass to stunningly complex works like “Liberty City", “Invitation", “3 Views of a Secret” and, most strikingly, “Crisis". The latter in particular set the tone for Pastorius’ new, post-Weather Report direction.
A brilliant work of composed chaos, “Crisis” is about as uncompromisingly challenging as Pastorius ever got. That he would choose to open his Word of Mouth (1981) album not with a retread of the virtuosity he displayed on his self-titled debut’s blazing “Donna Lee” speaks to where he was at as a musician after having studied under and butted heads with Joe Zawinul. Assembling a who’s who of top flight musicians including former Weather Report bandmate Peter Erskine, Randy Brecker, Don Alias, Toots Thielemans, Bob Mintzer and Othello Molineaux, post-Word of Mouth Pastorius strove to bring his creative vision from the record to the stage.
Arguably, the early 1980s (this performance having been captured in June of 1982) saw Pastorius at his best; just past his initial burst of fame and right before his tragic downfall and untimely death, he was a personal and creative peak. It was during this time that he was pushing his art to new and exciting levels of creative brilliance, allowing his compositional skills to rise to the level of his bass playing. Indeed, his bass complements the arrangements far better than many of the live Weather Report recordings captured in the years leading up to his taking charge of his own band. Here it is his writing and arranging for a progressive big band that is just as impressive -- not to mention important -- as his bass playing. Sadly, this would prove all too short of an artistic pinnacle.
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Originally captured for an NPR program, Jazz Alive!, Truth, Liberty & Soul offers an unedited, warts-and-all complete program featuring Pastorius and the mighty Word of Mouth Big Band. Featuring much of the same material -- and personnel -- as both The Birthday Concert and Invitation, Truth, Liberty & Soul expands on each of these, allowing greater space for other solo features for the rest of the band rather than Pastorius alone. Pastorius, too, seems aware of this, stepping back somewhat to allow for greater visibility for his band.
Yet where the two previously-released albums feature a pared-down, tightly sequenced program of choice cuts, Truth, Liberty & Soul presents the full program, including some decidedly patience-testing moments. The program’s first half is a virtual carbon copy of the performances on The Birthday Concert and Invitation, albeit with slightly more instrumental flair from the expanded band. Opening with “Invitation,” Pastorius ably leads the Word of Mouth Big Band through the song’s knotty instrumental interplay, pushing the tempo with his bubbling lines, wending in and out of the soaring harmonized horn parts. Similarly, “Donna Lee” finds the entire band playing the unison head at a frantic pace before exploding the tune into something far more spacious and less frenetic than the song’s bebop roots. It’s a fine showing of each player’s instrumental prowess, while also affording the chance to break the standard down to its base elements, tear it down and build it back into something truly awesome.
A live staple in the latter half of his career and a clear homage to his formative years in the trenches of Florida R&B groups, “Soul Intro/The Chicken” finds Pastorius and company in fine, funky territory, ripping through Pee Wee Ellis standard with aplomb, his bass improbably filling the rhythmic cracks with stunning timing and control. Similarly, “Fannie Mae” explores similar territory with Pastorius taking a vocal lead. Much looser than the version on Invitation, here it sounds like the work of a band letting its hair down, Pastorius’ vocals nowhere near as precise as on Invitation, but still organic, raw and “live.”
As alluded to above, there are moments of Truth, Liberty & Soul that are flat-out dull. The tentative bass and steel drum rendition of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” that opens the second disc is met with an appropriately tepid response, Pastorius sounding uncharacteristically unsure of himself as he navigates the melody using a series of false harmonics. That it’s immediately followed by the percussion-centric “Okonkolé y Trompa” doesn’t help matters. Stretching past the 15-minute mark it’s the longest track on the album and arguably filler that would’ve found itself on the cutting room floor had this been intended for wider commercial release. And while the combination of Alias and Erskine is particularly fiery, “Okonkolé y Trompa” lacks the requisite structure and brevity to hold the listener’s attention during the full run time.
Thankfully, the latter half of the collection picks back up with a blazing rendition of “Reza/Giant Steps” that again shows off Pastorius’ inimitable horn charts, the intricately harmonized lines delivered at jaw dropping speed with equally impressive accuracy and control. “Twins", a track intended for the studio follow up to Word of Mouth, pushes Pastorius’ compositional complexity into high gear. At just under three minutes, it’s an intense blast of progressive big band jazz virtually without equal elsewhere on the program. Given the overabundance of live recordings from around the same era and later, all of questionable fidelity, it’s a thrill to be able to hear the band firing on all cylinders so clearly. Had he not gone off the rails due to the severity of his undiagnosed mental illness, Pastorius and the Word of Mouth Big Band would’ve been a formidable force in the world of contemporary jazz.
And as no live performance would be complete without the requisite bass solo showcase, Truth, Liberty & Soul finds Pastorius treading familiar ground, all of which he executed more compellingly with “Slang” off of Weather Report’s 8:30. Seemingly having run out of ideas, Pastorius again does his rendition of “America” (more often than not credited as “Amerika”), teases “Purple Haze", “Portrait of Tracy” and, in a somewhat leftfield twist, “River People". In other words, it seems that nearly every recorded solo performance from Pastorius post-8:30 is essentially a retread of all that’s come before. But given the level of Pastorius’ playing within the context of a song, this is a minor quibble. Over all, Truth, Liberty & Soul is not necessarily an essential, but no less welcome addition to the Pastorius canon.