What Jaco Said: Thoughts on the Man and His Legacy
“ This cat had achieved what we were searching for: Definition, quickness, lyricism, and melodicism. ”
When I first heard Jaco, I was 16 years old. I walked into the music store where I worked in Utica, New York, and didn’t see anyone minding the store. Everyone was over by the stereo section. A few of the older musicians were standing in a circle, passing this album back and forth. They were shaking their heads and listening.
I said, “Who is this?” And one of the guys said, “It’s Jaco. We played with him in Lou Rawls’ band. I can’t believe he got a record deal.” As I stood there listening with them, “Donna Lee” was playing. I was familiar with the song, but it was just plain out the way Jaco did that tune, not to mention making it the first cut! I didn’t understand what I was hearing because it was so odd to hear something so fast and so melodic in the lower register. My ears weren’t ready for what I was hearing, and I couldn’t digest it right away.
Then I heard “Come On, Come Over,” and I remember saying, “Hey this cat sounds like Frances Rocco Prestia. That’s interesting.” So I kept listening. When “Continuum” came on, with all those harmonics, I really took notice. I thought, “What is this? What am I hearing here?”
Trading in Our Frets
I was in several different groups at that time, playing bass, drums and guitar. That moment — the moment I first heard Jaco — focused me seriously on the bass. I had gotten my first bass when I was nine years old and played non-stop. I felt limited playing in the confines of the instrument so I would gig on drums and guitar. I learned from Alphonso Johnson and then Jaco that I could actually feel fulfilled on the bass. And I immediately traded my fretted bass for a fretless Guild electric. A straight trade: a brand new Gibson Grabber bass for a used Guild fretless (much to my mother’s dismay).
All the bass players in town started yanking the frets out of their basses. It was mini-hysteria among bass players. Anyone who knew the music said, “This is what we have to do to get a sound like Jaco’s.”
Even with my first fretless, I couldn’t get that sound immediately. I worked to get the defined sound, to take the sound I had already developed and make it more pronounced, to bring it up above the band. Jaco was speaking above the bass drum. That’s what I was after. I was tired of being drowned out. I heard from Jaco what the bass could sound like in my hands.
Before Jaco, I studied Alphonso Johnson and Jack Bruce on the electric bass. I understood tonal variations for the bass, among other things, from these players, and I started to establish my own voice at that point. Still, that soaring, lyrical sound, like a Coltrane tenor solo, was what I was looking for, and it wasn’t coming from my hands – melodically or technically. As soon as I heard Jaco, I thought, “Ah-ha — he achieved it.” I could not believe what I was hearing. I was blown away.
Now, I thought, how do I get that beautiful sound?
He Gave Us Permission to be Heard
It seemed like when Jaco arrived, the rest of us on the edge got tossed aside for a time. I read about Stanley Clarke doing an interview, and the interviewer asked Stanley, “Have you heard Jaco?” And I could just see Stanley’s face — I knew. He says, “Yeah, I heard him.” That was the end of his comment. It was as if all other bass players were put out of business, or urged on to try harder and play their best.
We knew. We all knew. This cat had achieved what we were searching for: Definition, quickness, lyricism, and melodicism. It was every bassist’s dream. I incorporated Jaco’s influence by keeping my own sound, and then when it came time to solo, I would attempt to adopt Jaco’s method of soloing. In my soloing voice I wanted to get up above the other instruments in the band. That’s awfully hard to do on the bass. Jaco showed us how.
One band I was in consisted of a drummer with a large, deep kick drum, a trombonist who had an octave pedal on his trombone so he could reach way down and get all those sub-low synthesizer type notes, a guitarist who had a fatbox with a very thick sound, and a pianist who liked to play with all ten fingers and cover the whole range of the piano.
How do you get up from under that as a soloist — as a bassist? Your first instinct is to get louder. But that’s not necessarily the right idea. Following Jaco’s approach, I could be heard for the first time. That was the main thing. Jaco made it possible for us. He enlightened us and gave us permission. He said, you are a bassist and you can be heard. You don’t have to be lost in the sound or more specifically, lost in playing the accompaniment role.