JACO DVD Review: Portrait of a Tortured Genius

JACO presents a complicated yet fascinating portrait of a gifted musician who reinvented the bass.
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In 1976, an album was released that would revolutionize not only how the jazz bass is played, but the very concept of the instrument.  Until Jaco Pastorius, few considered the bass as a lead instrument, one with as much dimension and virtuosity as the piano or guitar.  The phenomenally gifted musician demonstrated the true meaning of fusion, melding together everything from Cuban to jazz to rock to R&B influences.  His speedy yet tuneful style and use of harmonics changed the bass and inspired countless musicians after him.  Mental illness and drug abuse cut his life and career horribly short, but his legacy endures.  

JACO, a new documentary produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, reveals how genius and torment both elevated and destroyed Pastorius.  Archival footage is accompanied by interviews with various figures in the artist’s life: family members; colleagues such as Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, and Wayne Shorter; and admirers such as Sting, Flea, Bootsy Collins, and Trujillo.  Their memories and insights present a multidimensional picture of the artist.  The film traces his youth in Oakland Park, Florida, growing up surrounded by music: Cuban, jazz, big band, and soul figured prominently in his childhood (in an archival interview, he declared that he grew up without musical prejudice).  At first Pastorius played the drums, eventually earning a spot in the local soul band Las Olas Brass.  When the drummer and bassist subsequently left the group, Pastorius switched instruments, experimenting with playing the bass in a different manner.  By 1970 he was married and became a new father; as his brother reveals in JACO, Pastorius resolved to kickstart his career by taking the bass to previously unknown heights.

The bassist proceeded to do just that, playing with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders and later collaborating with Pat Metheny (curiously absent from JACO).  His big break occurred when he was discovered by Bobby Colomby, the drummer for Blood, Sweat and Tears.  That fateful meeting led to 1976’s Jaco Pastorius; as Hancock reveals in the film, veteran jazz musicians lined up to work with the 21-year-old burgeoning talent.  Tracks such as “Continuum,” “Portrait of Tracy,” and “Come On, Come Over” became his trademark songs.  He astounded critics and fans with his rendition of Miles Davis’ “Donna Lee,” replicating Charle Parker’s sax solo on the bass.  At the same time, he connected with Joe Zawinul, founder of the innovative fusion group Weather Report; Pastorius told the keyboardist he was “the greatest bass player in the world,” and an initially skeptical Zawinul invited him to join the band.  As bandmate Shorter explains in JACO, Pastorius proved fearless, experimenting with different techniques and musical styles.  “The bass almost became incidental,” he says.  

Indeed, Pastorius’ unconventional style still astounds—he cut all the frets off his bass to achieve an almost symphonic sound, and would sometimes lay the bass flat and tap the strings.  After leaving Weather Report, he formed his own big band, Word of Mouth, and ventured into the avant garde.  Further demonstrating his willingness to explore different genres, he collaborated with Joni Mitchell, whose comments provide a nuanced portrait of the artist.  While she clearly admires his virtuosity and genius, she also struggled with his temperament.  When the Word of Mouth album failed to replicate the success of his first solo album and his work with Weather Report, he devolved  into drug use, exacerbating his ongoing struggle with bipolar disorder.  He continued performing live, but his mental illness ultimately overwhelmed him.  In JACO, Flea tells a distressing story of a friend encountering a homeless Pastorius in a New York park in 1986, playing “Louie Louie” for change.  

The film takes on a sense of dread as it lumbers toward its sad conclusion: Pastorius’ 1987 death from a brutal beating by a club bouncer.  JACO does not dwell upon the tragedy, instead focusing on his triumphs and complex personality.  As his daughter remarks in a fascinating interview, he heard music in everything from the ocean to the wind.  This gift was, she explains, “a blessing and a curse.”    

JACO ends on a relatively positive note, with today’s bassists citing Pastorius’ vast influence.  Trujillo calls him “punk rock,” stating that he pioneered the combination of rock and jazz.  Hancock pays him the ultimate compliment: that Pastorius developed his own unique sound in a relatively short period.  Sting may summarize best what musicians such as Flea, Collins, and Geddy Lee believe: “all of us stand on Jaco’s shoulders.”  

Longtime fans and newcomers will find JACO fascinating in its thoughtful and balanced portrait of a once-in-a-lifetime talent.  The DVD comes with a bonus disc that contains longer interviews with Mitchell, Peter Erskine, Al Di Meola, Santana, Collins, Lee, Hancock, Flea, Victor Wooten, Les Claypool, Meshell Ndegeocello, Nathan Watts, and Randy Brecker.  Legendary trumpeter Ira Sullivan, also included on the bonus disc, utters a statement that should have been included in the finished film: he reports that Pastorius once told him “I’m going to make the non-instrument an instrument.”  As JACO proves, Pastorius accomplished that goal in a remarkably short time.  

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