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Jaco Pastorius: Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions

John Kelman By
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Jaco Pastorius: Jaco Pastorius: Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions
1976 was, for electric bassists, the year where everything changed. Jaco Pastorius hadn't quite emerged from nowhere, and the few prior recordings on which he could be found may have provided some hint of what was to come, but it was the quadruple punch of fellow legend-in-the-making Pat Metheny's leader debut Bright Size Life (ECM, 1976), singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell's classic Hejira (Elektra/Asylum, 1976), fusion super group Weather Report's Black Market (Columbia, 1976) and, most notably, the bassist's own Jaco Pastorius (Epic, 1976), whose opening track—a duet look at Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee" with percussionist Don Alias that spoke of instrumental mastery and remarkable conceptual sophistication —that caused bassists around the world over to look up from their instruments. Who was this guy? Where did he come from? How did he emerge, seemingly out of nowhere, so fully formed and, even more significantly, well-informed? Modern American Music...Period! The Criteria Sessions goes a long way to answering those questions.

If anything, these eleven tracks—culled from the bassist's March, 1974 demo sessions at Miami's Criteria Studios, recorded 17 months before he entered Camp Colomby Studios in New York City to lay down the tracks for Jaco Pastorius—demonstrate that this remarkable youngster, who'd cut his teeth on the South Florida nightclub circuit with Wayne Cochran's CC Riders R&B revue, was already not just a monster bassist on an instrument that had its frets removed and the neck coated in marine epoxy to protect it from the Rotosound round wound strings that, all things combined, gave him his distinctive tone; he was also a composer who, well beyond promise, was already more than delivering.

"Havona"—Pastorius' combination of thematic lyricism and a light-speed concluding figure, relentless 16th note support lines, and sophisticated harmonies that nevertheless groove effortlessly, richly redolent of his South Florida home's subtropical breeze—would not appear on record until 1977 as the closer to Heavy Weather (Columbia), Weather Report's most commercially successful album to date and the one that elevated the group to superstar status, but it can be heard here in nascent but surprisingly fully developed form, combined in a 10-minute medley with the more atmospheric "Continuum," a song that would ultimately become something of a signature for the bassist after it appeared on his 1976 Epic debut.

These are demos, however, and the sound quality is somewhat less than hi fidelity, with some significant tape hiss heard, especially on the ethereal introduction to "Havona/Continuum," but any sonic deficiencies quickly melt away in the face of Pastorius' staggering talent and youthful exuberance. While Jaco Pastorius would sport a more high profile cast, with appearances from Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Lenny White and Michael Brecker and Randy Brecker, it's perhaps surprising to see that at least some of Pastorius' relationships were already in place by the time of his Criteria demos. While he doesn't duet with Pastorius on Modern American Music's also-opening "Donna Lee," Don Alias is in the pool soon after on "Balloon Song (12-Tone)," a challenging and oblique piece previously heard on Portrait of Jaco: The Early Years 1968- 78 (Holiday Park, 2009),but in significantly edited form, chopped down from just over eight minutes to under six.

Alex Darqui's performance on piano and Fender Rhodes—here and throughout these sessions—suggests a talent whose subsequent anonymity remains a mystery. On "Pans," a fade-in on a fiery jam that—in addition to the pianist's busy Rhodes and Pastorius' unrelenting 16th-note bass line (dissimilar, but still somehow evoking the same controlled chaos of "Crisis," the opening track to Pastorius' 1981 Warner Bros. debut, Word of Mouth)—also features not one, but two steel drum players: Cederik Lucious and Othello Molineaux, the latter to remain a key figure in Pastorius' groups and recordings from Jaco Pastorius through to his Warner Bros. recordings, including the posthumously released The Birthday Concert (Warner Bros., 1995). It was a sound that was a constant definer to Pastorius' own music beyond his tenure with Weather Report.

Early versions of other tracks that would ultimately appear on Jaco Pastorius show just how well-conceived Pastorius' music was, not just in his ability to imbue complex form with unshakable grooves rooted in his early R&B days, but in their arrangements as well. As harmonically abstruse as Pastorius could sometimes be, it was a rare occurrence, indeed, when the music wasn't somehow booty-shaking, too. The bright-tempo'd "Kuru" may lack the added strings and glossier production of the version on Jaco Pastorius, but it does still feature a staggering solo from Alias—a reminder just how much the percussionist is missed, since departing from this world in 2006 at the age of 66. In addition to the "Havona/Continuum" medley, a separate version of "Continuum" is a far busier affair than that which would ultimately be recorded for Jaco Pastorius—and while Pastorius' tone, even at this early stage was already unmistakable, he'd yet to apply the phase shifting that would also become a signature part of his tonal arsenal.

Still, there are differences. An early version of Jaco Pastorius' "Opus Pocus" (here called "Opus Pocus (Pans #2)") is taken at a considerably brighter clip and, with drummer Bobby Economu playing—he appears on just one track on Jaco Pastorius but plays on all of Modern American Music—lacks the greasy funk that Lenny White and Herbie Hancock would ultimately bring to the subsequent take with far less gravitas and much more groove.

In addition to the eight tracks lifted from the original acetate—the only acetate in existence apparently, and which has been in the possession of Pastorius' brother Gregory—three additional tracks round out Modern American Music's 66-minute runtime: an alternate version of the incendiary "Time Lapse," another composition that never saw the light of day but, appearing here twice, omits Alias' conga intro in the alternate take; an even lengthier version of "Balloon Song (12- Tone)," taken at a slightly reduced tempo and played with a much freer disposition, as opposed to the brightly swinging take on the acetate; and an earlier, even shorter and stripped down look at Jaco Pastorius' closer, "Forgotten Love" (here, just "Forgotten"), a solo Fender Rhodes piece performed by Pastorius that demonstrates the building blocks for the later version, which would feature Hancock on grand piano and Pastorius' sweeping string arrangement.

As author Bill Milkowski—whose liner notes bring additional insight to Modern American Music—describes in his definitive Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius—Deluxe Edition (Backbeat Books, 2005), Pastorius' rapid rise to fame and the stuff of legend was equaled only by his tragically accelerated decline in the mid-'80s, leading to his premature death in 1987 at the age of 35. Modern American Music...Period! The Criteria Sessions reveals that Pastorius' ascent into the upper echelon of jazz legends had already begun long before the world at large awoke to that fact when four separate but essential recordings were released in 1976, just months apart. For Pastorius fans, this is a true revelation; for those who think, decades later, that all the "Jaco" hype has been much exaggerated, one listen to the exceptional music made by this singular musician at the age of 22 should be all that's needed to change their minds.


Track Listing: Donna Lee; Balloon Song (12-Tone); Pans #1; Havona/Continuum; Opus Pocus (Pans #2); Time Lapse; Balloon Song (alternate); Time Lapse (alternate); Forgotten Love.

Personnel: Jaco Pastorius: bass, Fender Rhodes; Bob Economou: drums; Alex Darqui: piano, Fender Rhodes; Othello Molineaux: steel drums; Sir Cederik Lucious: steel drums; Don Alias: percussion.

Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Omnivore Recordings | Style: Fusion/Progressive Rock


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