What Jaco Said: Thoughts on the Man and His Legacy

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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.

The Mysterious Traveler and Heavy Weather albums changed everything for me. I was a Weather Report and an Alphonso Johnson fanatic before Jaco joined the group, but hearing Jaco in that context re-defined my direction musically, because that whole band incorporated Jaco’s sound. They gave Jaco a place in the group or, should I say, Jaco made his own way into the sound of that group.

Hearing Weather Report with Alphonso Johnson coming in as a dominant but supportive force (being a bit more groove heavy) and then hearing Jaco come in there, forcing everyone else in the band to take responsibility for holding down the fort — that was just an astounding thing for those days, an incredible feat for a bassist.

And it was perfect. Who was to say that the electric bass couldn’t be an integral instrument, out in front, like a saxophone? That’s how Jaco redefined music for me personally. With attitude, you can get the sounds out of your head and into the band mix.

With Heavy Weather, we all started playing those songs, and it was quite a challenge to play the Jaco tunes. The fretless was my sound by then. I was busy in my own world of music working with some of the guys out of Lou Rawls’ band who had worked with Jaco, and believe it or not, I was playing drums with them.

I was playing with Carmen Caramanica, a fine guitarist, who was the musical director / producer for Lou Rawls while Jaco was in the band. Also with Rick Montalbano, who was the pianist in Lou’s band. Carmen was the one who had to fire Jaco. He told me the story of how he and Lou were talking about it, and Jaco overheard them. Jaco says, “Who’s firing who? And Lou says, “I didn’t fire you, he did,” pointing to Carmen. Jaco was given two weeks notice and legend has it he played the way he wanted to for those two weeks.

“You from Philly?”
I’d hear a lot about Jaco’s antics from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s, but had never met him. I moved out to California and finally back to Rochester, NY, where in 1982 I joined Cabo Frio, a fusion group who later signed with MCA / Zebra.

In 1983, I heard that Jaco was coming through Rochester. I said to the other guys in the band, “We have to open the show for Jaco – it would be too perfect.” But we were doing a recording session for our second album, and there was no way to make it happen.

By that time I had heard Word of Mouth and then the import album (which later became the Invitation album) produced by a mutual business acquaintance of Jaco and mine. Jaco was on the Invitation tour, and I was dead set on getting to Red Creek to hear some of the show. This was one of the few times we took ourselves away from the studio and from recording. You stopped what you were doing because Jaco was in town.

I got there and saw Mike Stern wandering around in beat up shoes with holes in them, but I didn’t see Jaco. When show time hit, I saw him all right, and I listened to his playing amazed the whole time. It was an incredible show.

Afterwards, I was looking for an opportunity to go up and talk to Jaco, and I was thinking, “How do I weasel my way back there?” But before I could make my way down stairs, I saw Jaco walking towards me. He says, “You look familiar to me. Are you from Philly?” I said, “I’ve played Philly, but I’m not from Philly.” I think he heard me saying, “Yeah, I’m from Philly.”

Later I realized that Jaco had hung out at Jerry Jemmott’s house, and one of my former students was studying with Jerry at the time. He’d brought Jerry the first Cabo Frio album, the one with all our faces on the back cover. My student told me Jaco had heard the album, and that there was a bass line in one of the songs — “Little Evie” — that was definitely the way Jaco would have approached it. Jaco heard it and had seen the album, and I’m pretty sure that’s what triggered his memory.

So Jaco and I started talking and we hung out for a while. All the time I’m thinking, this is too terrific — I’m talking to Jaco. Then he said, “Hey, why don’t you come back to the hotel and hang out.” I asked if he had his bass with him. The band’s stuff was already on the bus, but I had two basses with me because I’d been recording that day. So we decided to go back and do some jamming.

“You gotta learn how to play with two fingers” We headed to the Holiday Inn with the rest of the band in tow. Cabo Frio’s guitarist Glenn Cummings had his guitar amp — a Boogie amp not made for anything else but guitar — and we had two basses going through that little Boogie amp. Glenn figured it was a good sacrifice. He said, “If we blow it we’ll just get another one.” Glenn had a camera too, which was great. And we had a tape recorder.

Talk about a night I’ll always remember.

Our playing was a test of fire. It was surreal. We were set up in the room. Mike Stern was there at first to see if I was for real. I was playing my Guild fretless and had also brought an old fretted Fender Precision Bass that Stern tried out.


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