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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 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.


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