10 examples of the supernatural genius of Jaco Pastorius

Jaco Pastorious
(Image credit: GAB Archive / Getty Images)

Bass players across all genres worship him as a god. For the uninitiated, Jaco Pastorius’s virtuoso bass lines and technique changed the sound and possibilities of what was generally perceived as a do-the-basics instrument. His fretless work with Weather Report and Joni Mitchell made him briefly a lionised name.

Yet sadly, after his heyday of the late Seventies, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1982. He fell prey to alcohol and drugs, and was effectively homeless by 1987, when he died after a fight with a bouncer at a Santana concert, where he’d snuck onstage before being ejected. 

A sorry end, in his mid-thirties, for a man called “arguably the most important and ground-breaking electric bassist in history”. At least the music from his imperial phase survives.

Donna Lee (from Jaco Pastorius, 1976)

From Pastorius’ solo debut, produced by Blood Sweat & Tears’ Bobby Colomby, a Miles Davis cover (although oddly in earlier years mis-credited to Charlie Parker). While the album featured guests from Sam & Dave to Narada Michael Walden and the Brecker brothers, this opener gave free rein to Jaco’s burbling bass, with just Don Alias’ congas as accompaniment. 

Quite the showy showcase for his unique talent. Pat Metheny said, “Astounding in that it was played with a hornlike phrasing that was previously unknown to the bass guitar – not to mention that it’s just about the hippest start to a debut album in the history of recorded music.”

Bright Size Life (from Bright Size Life, Pat Metheny, 1976)

Born 1951 in Pennsylvania, John Pastorius was given his nickname “Jocko” for his love of baseball. A French pianist assumed the correct spelling was “Jaco”, which the bassist liked so much he adopted. He’d injured his wrist badly at 13, requiring surgery, and it’s safe to say this affected his unorthodox style. 

Joining Metheny and drummer Bob Moses for the guitarist’s debut led to a dream of asymmetrical phrasing. Pastorius allows Metheny most of the limelight but is a perfect contrapuntal force. This title track has since been included on the Smithsonian Institution’s jazz anthology.

All American Alien Boy (from All American Alien Boy, Ian Hunter, 1976)

With the former Mott The Hoople frontman. Perhaps witnessing the success of Bowie’s Young Americans, Hunter required talented musos to surprise glam-rock audiences with a fresh direction. Pastorius played bass across this still-underrated album, bringing colour to numbers like You Nearly Did Me In (with Queen on backing vocals) and God (Take 1)

It was the wordy, insistent title track which best gelled sax-funk and beat-poetry to carry a slow-burning kick. How regrettable that Pastorius didn’t bring his flavours to rock stars’ opuses more often.

Suite Golden Dawn (from Land Of The Midnight Sun, Al Di Meola, 1976)

An early giant in the jazz fusion field, guitarist Di Meola’s own debut — he was just 22 — went boldly for everything from a Bach sonata to mini-Moog solos, involving every key name in the genre from bassist Stanley Clarke to keyboardist Chick Corea. 

For most though, the highlight is this three-part, 10-minute suite, which presents Pastorius’ strange blend of stutter and flow in all its nascent glory, his confidence growing rapidly. Already, only Clarke was still playing in a comparable league.

Coyote (from Hejira, Joni Mitchell, 1976)

What a productive year ’76 was for the 24-year-old wonder kid. His “discovery” by Joni, as the genius singer-songwriter counter-intuitively “went jazz”, brought his name to an entirely new audience. His subtly dazzling performances on her albums were nothing short of game-changing. 

While it didn’t sell overly well at first, Hejira is now generally recognised as one of the decade’s high water marks. Pastorius only played on half the tracks, but the opener Coyote introduced a new style of Mitchell sound in which her free-form compositions were given breath by his hard-to-ignore but easy-to-love lines, as affecting in their way as her literate lyrics. No regrets here.

Birdland (from Heavy Weather, Weather Report, 1977)

While waiting to record his own debut, Pastorius had attended a Weather Report gig in Miami. Afterwards he accosted frontman keyboardist Joe Zawinul, and told him they’d be better with him in the band as he was the greatest bass player in the world. Zawinul has said he told him to “get the fuck out of here”, but when Pastorius left a demo at his hotel room the next day he realised the young man had a valid point. 

Heavy Weather, the group’s eighth album and second with Jaco, gave them a new commercial clout, and Birdland became a jazz classic. Rolling Stone remarked that whereas their music previously “only went up and up”, Pastorius’ “busy, talkative” style gave them “a new bottom that makes all the difference in the world”.

Punk Jazz (from Mr. Gone, Weather Report, 1978)

Weather Report’s next album was dissed in some snooty quarters for “selling out” – i.e. being fairly listenable. It swiftly went gold. Pastorius himself penned Punk Jazz, a 5-minute race of bass in which he certainly doesn’t hide his light under a bushel. Not sure where the “punk” part comes in, but it’s nothing if not highly individual. Maybe there’s old bass, there’s new bass, and there’s Jaco Pastorius…

The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey (from Mingus, Joni Mitchell, 1979)

Joni’s collaboration with Charles Mingus – his last project – proved her romance with jazz had gone far beyond flirtation. From minimalism to spoken sections to scat singing to wolves howling (on this track), it’s an extraordinary sonic adventure, years ahead of its time. 

Pastorius was joined by fellow jazz adventurers Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, and Don Alias who’d played congas on his solo debut. He also arranged the horns on the track The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines. Barking.

Night Passage (from Night Passage, Weather Report, 1980)

Weather Report pulled back from the alleged traits of over-production on their eleventh to record in front of a small crowd at an L.A. studio. Fewer overdubs, more solo improvisation: which is, of course, very, very jazz. 

Pastorius is ridiculously impressive on Wayne Shorter’s Port Of Entry, flinging out those runs of his to fans’ delight. Yet it’s the title track, swinging as lightly as Birdland, which perhaps best marries the agile and the accessible.

4 A.M. (from Mr. Hands, Herbie Hancock, 1980)

Herbie Hancock was thirty albums into his career and still innovating. As well as popularising synthesisers, he used a computer on this “electric jazz” album for the first time. An Apple computer! Whatever became of those? 

The jazz-funk grooves sound updated and modern, Pastorius locking in for scintillating slides on 4 A.M. It seemed the Eighties would be there for the taking for the absurdly gifted bass player, but this golden half-decade run was, tragically, as great as it got for him

Jaco: The Film, the documentary about the life of Jaco Pastorius produced by Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.