JACO (The Film)

John Kelman By

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Jaco Pastorius
JACO (The Film)
Slang East/West

With author Bill Milkowksi's extraordinarily detailed and honest accounting of Pastorius' life in his biography—first published in 1996 but reissued nearly a decade later as Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius: Deluxe Edition (Backbeat Books, 2005), with a hundred pages of additional footage garnered when those close to the late bassist were, with the passage of time, ready and willing to talk more openly about the complexities of Pastorius' life...and death—it seemed that the final words had been written on the subject. Still, a film about Pastorius seemed inevitable at some point, and while it's a subject about which there could be considerable trepidation, there's very good news to report: JACO not only captures the full spirit of Pastorius, but tells the bassist's story with complete and utter honesty.

It would have been all too easy to sugarcoat Pastorius' life, and focus on the good while minimizing the bad. Still, from the film's opening segment after the credit roll (with voice-over interview clips with everyone from Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock to Joni Mitchell setting the stage for what's to come), a video interview with Pastorius from the September 19, 1985 interview with Jerry Jemmott (originally published as the 1985 bass instructional video, Modern Electric Bass) finds the Aretha Franklin and B.B. King bassist extolling Pastorius' many musical virtues. Asking the bassist—who looks unhealthy and emotionally depressed—how he felt about his importance, his influence, and how he had changed the way people looked at his instrument. Pastorius looks steeped in thought for a very brief moment before cracking a smile and saying "Gimme a gig, you know?"

That this was the truth was both the tragedy of where Pastorius' life had ultimately gone—a later interview with Jemmott follows immediately, where the bassist says, "Ironically, at that particular point, he couldn't get a gig." As the footage returns to a close-up of Pastorius, clearly in pain both physical and spiritual, Jemmott continues: "It was all over him; you could see it, that he was a man who had trouble. But getting it out was very important, even in the shape that he was in."

A fast edit to Pastorius, from the same interview session, playing "America the Beautiful," leads to Jemmott's continued commentary: It wasn't just notes; it had feeling, it had meaning to it and it had character. You can't really teach that. It's something he learned how to play—what was in his heart."

With an opening like that, it's clear that JACO is a film that intends to glorify Pastorius for his many achievements—as another quick edit jumps six months prior to a live performance in Japan, where Pastorius is clearly a hero to the huge and enthusiastic audience—but is also a documentary set on telling the truth about the almost meteoric rise and tragic fall of one of music's greatest artists of the latter quarter of the 20th century...not just jazz but, influencing everyone from The Police's Sting and Red Hot Chilli Peppers' Flea to Rush's Geddy Lee and Metallica's Robert Trujillo. From the moment that he introduced himself to Joe Zawinul, after a Weather Report show in 1975 with, "My name is John Francis Pastorius the third; I'm the greatest bassist in the world"—to which Zawinul replied "Get the fuck outta here," until he actually heard him play—Pastorius' life was about to change...although, in truth, it already had.

Pastorius met Bobby Colomby, the drummer for Blood, Sweat & Tears, when the band was doing a Florida residency in 1974. Introduced to him by Pastorus' then-wife, Tracy—who, after being asked by Colomby if she was married, said "Yes, I'm married...to the greatest bassist in the world"—when Colomby first met Pastorius he said, "Oh, I understand you're the greatest bassist in the world," to which the bassist replied, "I am." Colomby recounts, "Then, of course, the arrogant New York side of me came out and I said, 'Well, why don't you get your bass to play a little bit?' He played 'Donna Lee,' this Charlie Parker song, as a solo. He played it with the facility and phrasing and nuance of a saxophonist."

The next thing he knew, Pastorius was in New York, recording his first album for Epic Records. But whereas many people offered a major deal with a major label would forget about the people they'd played with back home, as Colomby continues, "He wanted to keep them involved as much as possible," bringing steel pan player Othello Molineaux, drummer Bobby Economou and percussionist Don Alias into the picture. In the case of Alias and Molineaux, they were relationships that would continue well into the 1980s, with the bassist's various-sized Word of Mouth band.

Meanwhile, returning to Florida after the recording of Jaco Pastorius, the bassist had his fateful meeting with Zawinul, who was in the midst of recording Black Market with Weather Report. After they met, Zawinul invited Pastorius back to his hotel room. The group's bassist at the time, Alphonso Johnson, picks up the story. "That evening, after we finished playing, I could hear music coming out of a room at the hotel, and I stopped and it's Joe's room. I peep in and I couldn't see Jaco, I could just see his back, but I could hear this recording and I though 'Wow, who's that?!' So Joe says, 'C'mon, c'mon, I want you to meet this guy, he's a bad motherfucker.' So he introduced me to Jaco, and I listened to the record. It was incredible. I started putting two and two together: here's this phenomenal bassist that Joe's interested in; what are my chances of being around much longer? So I just went for the other gig [with the George Duke/Billy Cobham Band] and it was perfect."

The entire film tells its story without the use of a narrator; instead, it's told through interviews with Pastorius, his family and many of the artists he would encounter or influence in his life, as well as his music. Found footage of Pastorius playing bass in Las Olas Brass in 1966 at the age of 15 is juxtaposed with music by his father, singer Jack Pastorius (in the Frank Sinatra mould), along with the bassist's own recounting of his early years: "I grew up in Florida, where there was no real musical prejudice. There was all sorts of music, everything from Cuban music to symphonic music...everything. Whatever you wanted to hear you could hear. And everything's hip. I really wasn't influenced that much by bass players; to tell the truth I didn't know who the bass players were most of the time. The main thing was just the music itself, whatever was hip then, that was what I was checking out, mostly off 45s."

By the time he was in his mid-teens, after starting out on a drum kit he bought with money made on a newspaper route, he'd switched to bass and, while he was clearly motivated as a musician, he described his own life: "I had no ambition whatsoever, in life, at all, except to play tonight. I'm gonna go play tonight over at this club."

In some ways, Pastorius' hard work and good fortune at being at the right place at the right time (while undeniably taking full advantage of those moments) could only have happened at that time. After all, what bassist could become a superstar almost overnight in today's musical landscape? As Herbie Hancock describes over the opening credits, "In the '70s it was a war cry to be different. Musicians owned the music business."

The film includes a bevy of interview clips with everyone from Bob Bobbing (who may be singularly responsible for keeping the Pastorius flames fanned in the decades after his death), Wayne Shorter, Carlos Santana, Al Di Meola and Herbie Hancock to fellow Weather Reporters Robert Thomas, Jr. and Peter Erskine—the latter who, remaining with Pastorius in his post-Weather Report Word of Mouth bands, sheds, perhaps, the most realistic and painful light on Pastorius' life in the 1980s, as the bipolar condition that had given him so much energy and drive in the early part of his career began to spiral downwards into a cycle of mixed moods and substance abuse...even as he does so with impeccable grace and the utmost respect and love.

Largely chronological, JACO descends into tragedy in its latter third, but not until plenty of live footage with Weather Report, Joni Mitchell and Pastorius' own groups demonstrate the remarkable genius of his work as both a performer and a writer.

But it was the recording of his second album, 1981's Word of Mouth, that seemed to be both an artistic high and critical crossroad in Pastorius' life. It's a revelation to learn, during the recording of the chaotic, anarchistic "Crisis," that he told (uncredited) co-producer Peter Yianilos that "we're not gonna let anybody hear anyone else's parts. Whatever happens, let's see if it fits." As Yianilos recalls, "it had a life of its own; it grew powerfully."

A fitting description of a track that, opening Word of Mouth, was as far from radio-friendly and accessible as any album opener could be...and, given the interview clips with Warner Brothers Music's Ricky Schultz, a dangerous move.Schultz says: "It was apparent to some of us that this was a guy who was really something special and, in addition to being something special, had the potential really to break through and cross over. We set out on a quest to get Jaco to come to Warner Brothers. It was a star-level deal, make no mistake about it, and, because the record business is a business, expectations tend to follow the deal. You sign an act for $75,000 your expectations are at one level; if you sign an act for four times that...

"It's very rare that any record has a piece like this on it,"Schultz continues. "Pablo Picasso, 'Guernica,' Jaco Pastorius, 'Crisis.' They are of the same cloth. He wanted to open the record with this. I mean, there are a lot of people at the company that, if they heard this track, they'd just pull their hair out and say, 'Wait a minute, we can't use this, it's crazy, it's cacophony, it's atonal, nobody can follow it, it's scary...' I'm shaking right now as I'm thinking about it. I was kinda scared about the idea of it opening the record."

Peter Erskine picks up the story: "They pleaded with him; they said: 'Any other tune but that. We can't get this album onto radio if it's the first track." And Yianilos concludes with: "I think it made him very happy to think of this going on a record. I would say he was venting, venting a little bit of personal frustration, and then he realized this is the only way to start a record like this. It's to make people wonder: 'What's coming?' And then what comes is so different."
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