There’s never been an electric bassist as deified as Jaco Pastorius, who had the swagger of a stadium rocker and the sophistication of a jazz artist. His 1982 Lincoln Center concert is newly released.
There have been many guitar gods, but there’s never been an electric bassist as deified as Jaco Pastorius. And with good reason. A member of Weather Report from 1976–1981, Pastorius once commenced a concert in Montreal by jumping off a balcony and then onto the stage; in Toronto, he did a back-flip while playing. He wore his hair in braids, with bandanas, and in a man-bun (before anyone called it that). He referred to himself, echoing someone else of that era, as the “greatest bass player in the world.”
If Pastorius had the swagger of a stadium rocker, it so happened he had the harmonic sophistication of a jazz musician. With his fretless bass, he redefined the sound and role of his instrument. His sad, untimely death, at the age of 35—he suffered from bipolar disorder and was killed in an altercation outside a South Florida nightclub—only added to his mystique.
Pyrotechnics aside, his musical palette fanned out wide, as a composer, arranger, band-leader, and even big-band-leader. All of those roles are on display in this exultant, newly-released live recording from the Resonance label, which documents a June 27, 1982 concert at Avery Fisher Hall (complete with a 100-page book). The performance was part of George Wein’s Kool Jazz Festival and a large portion was broadcast on National Public Radio’s Jazz Alive!, a program produced by Tim Owens and hosted by Dr. Billy Taylor that ran from 1977 to 1983. Owens and Zev Feldman of Resonance uncovered 40 minutes that weren’t played during the NPR show, and have released the entire 130-minute concert in its entirety with the help of Grammy-winning engineer Paul Blakemore, who worked the original performance at Lincoln Center.
By 1981, Pastorius had left Weather Report, who were among the godfathers of the fusion movement. Having established his international reputation, he then formed Word of Mouth, an uncommon sextet made up of Randy Brecker on trumpet, Bob Mintzer on tenor sax, Othello Molineaux on steel pans, Don Alias on congas, and Peter Erskine on drums, all one better than the next. (Though in the book, Erskine—another ex-Weather Reporter—proves to be the most formidable raconteur.) Pastorius would expand Word of Mouth into a big band, and a mighty one. They were 22-strong on this night with some of New York’s top session players and special guest Toots Thielemans on harmonica. Everyone was on fire, with the precision of a regular touring act. In fact, they weren’t; Pastorius used different personnel, depending on the city he was in. According to the book, it was one rehearsal, sound check, and—boom—show time.
If the concert starts off jittery, with the frenetic 13-minute “Invitation”—the band seems almost too hyped-up—the remaining two-hours are a seamless, pitch-perfect display of A-game professionalism married to virtuoso sparkle. Even the sound is crystal clear, in a hall with notoriously poor acoustics, especially for non-orchestral music.
The next tune “Soul Intro” starts with a slow, two-minute Pastorius solo, showing off his elastic technique. The band settles into “The Chicken,” a funk number and one of the most rousing pieces of the night. Besides Mintzer and Brecker, the ensemble is joined by five additional saxophones, five trumpets, three trombones, and a tuba. Plus, there are two French horn players, one of whom, John Clark, is especially majestic in the Pastorius-penned tour de force “Okonkolé y Trompa” (which also included an extended conga solo from Don Alias).
Pastorius directs the band through rigorous new takes on some of his best-known compositions, like “Three Views Of a Secret” and “Liberty City.” He tips his hat to the jazz canon with Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” where Thielemans shines; Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee”; and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” He ends with the 1959 blues hit “Fannie Mae” and actually sings (Pastorius was many things, but he wasn’t a singer) before he mumbles the names of the band members to the adoring crowd.
The setting for the concert may have helped bring out the best in everyone. The 10-night Kool Jazz Festival was a big deal at the time; The New York Times devoted 2,300 words in a preview article. It may not have been Madison Square Garden, but painter LeRoy Neiman did the loud poster art, and many of those shows had the air of a big game, despite the normally staid venues. As grand as Pastorius’ show was, though, it was the beginning of the end for him. Erskine and Mintzer recall noticing his odd behavior on their ensuing gig in Montreal. And later in 1982, a tour of Japan was, in the word of the drummer, “disastrous.” Five years later, Pastorius was dead. At least this midsummer night’s dream of a performance is now available for all to remember and relive.