Many people feel that Jaco Pastorius was the best to ever pick up a bass guitar. Over the course of his relatively brief yet incredibly prolific career, he developed an influential approach to bass playing that combined complex harmony with virtuosic technique. His signature style employed Latin-influenced funk grooves, lyrical solos on fretless bass, bass chords, and innovative use of harmonics and looping which continues to influence artists to this day. It’s usually a fool’s errand to make broad, sweeping claims regards to music and musicians. The essence of music is subjective, and there’s no accounting for taste. But the notion that Jaco is one of the greatest bassists ever is about as close as music patrons will get to a consensus opinion. Hell, even Jaco thought so—and he was famously not shy about letting people know.
Pastorius is perhaps best known for his work with Weather Report in the late 70s and early 80s. However, his partnership with Weather Report nearly didn’t take, due in part to Pastorius’ bravado about his bass-playing prowess. Before the sessions for his now-classic eponymous debut album (Jaco Pastorius, 1976), the bassist attended a Weather Report concert in Miami. According keyboardist and bandleader Joe Zawinul in Bill Milkowski’s book Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius, Jaco walked up to him after the concert and talked about the performance, saying that it was alright, but that he had expected more from them. He then went on to introduce himself–as the “greatest bass player in the world.”
An unamused Zawinul initially told him to “get the fuck outta here,” but over the course of their conversation, Pastorius’s headstrong and confident attitude eventually made Zawinul admire the then-unknown young bassist. He asked Jaco for a demo tape, and sure enough one showed up at his hotel took the next morning. The tape was what got the ball rolling in earnest, as Zawinul quickly realized the impressive technical abilities of the brash young musician. Pastorius joined Weather Report during the recording sessions for Black Market (1976), and he became a vital part of the band by virtue of the unique qualities of his bass playing, his skills as a composer (and, in time, arranger) and his exuberant showmanship on stage.
Sadly, Jaco’s genius was not long for this world. He struggled with bipolar disorder and substance abuse, and eventually died in a tragic freak incident at the age of 35. Today, Jaco would have celebrated his 67th birthday, and we are left to wistfully imagine the peaks he could have hit had his life not ended so soon. In honor of Jaco Pastorius’ birthday today, take a look back at videos from some of his most impressive performances. They don’t call him the “greatest” for nothing…
Watch Jaco groove on “The Chicken” with another legend on his instrument, John Scofield, in a live studio session courtesy of YouTube user AM FUNK II:
Watch Jaco lay down one of his signature solo pieces, “Slang”, in 1979 below, courtesy of YouTube user Fernando Shiraishi:
Watch Jaco play “Portrait of Tracy” solo from a 1975 live performance via YouTube user Per Hvidbjerg:
Watch Jaco, aka John Francis Anthony Pastorius III, rip an incredible improvised “Teen Town” with his trio (Bireli Lagrene – guitar; Thomas Böröcz – drums) live in Italy in 1986 via YouTube user Alejandro Coronel: