Guitarist Pat Metheny once wrote that "Jaco Pastorius may well have been the last jazz musician of the 20th century to have made a major impact on the musical world at large. He simply played his ass off, in a way that was totally unprecedented on his instrument, or on any instrument for that matter."
Beginning with his solo debut in the mid-1970s, and through his work with Metheny, Joni Mitchell, Weather Report, and subsequently his Word of Mouth bands, Jaco single-handedly shattered the boundaries of the electric bass and redefined its role across all idioms of music.
Born John Francis Pastorius in Norristown, PA, on December 1, 1951, Jaco was surrounded by musical influences from the moment he came into the world. His father, Jack Pastorius, had been a professional singer and drummer during the big band heyday of the 1940s and early '50s. As a result, Jaco grew up listening to the WWII-era swing of the Dorsey brothers, as well as the iconic voices of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and the like.
Jaco moved with his family to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, at a young age. By his late teens, he was playing bass with R&B bands along the South Florida circuit – including Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, an eclectic, high-energy outfit that would try anything from R&B to jazz to rock and roll. Road-weary after less than a year, he returned to Ft. Lauderdale, where he hooked up with the Peter Graves Orchestra, the house band at the Bachelors III, a popular nightclub that hosted such diverse jazz and pop talents as Mel Torme, the Temptations, Nancy Wilson and Patti Page.
For the next five years, Jaco provided the fiery undercurrent to the Peter Graves Orchestra's rhythm section, a gig that afforded him numerous opportunities to write, arrange and otherwise expand the role and the potential of the bass from merely a supporting voice to that of a lead player. It was during these seminal years that Jaco explored and developed the musical ideas and themes that would be a part of his work for the remainder of his all-too-brief career.
Jaco left the Peter Graves Orchestra in 1975 and released the highly acclaimed self-titled solo album a year later that cemented his reputation as an ambitious innovator and arguably the greatest electric jazz bassist of his generation – which was no small achievement for a young musician of 24. Despite the album's success, Jaco opted for the band groove over the solo recording career and joined Weather Report in 1976 (although he continued to do session work for artists like Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Blood Sweat & Tears and various other acts). His extensive contributions to Weather Report – not just as a musician, but as a writer and arranger as well – took the band's already progressive approach to an entirely new level.
By the early 80s, Jaco was looking for new territory to explore. He left Weather Report in 1982 and formed Word of Mouth, a project that marked a return to his big band roots – albeit with a highly progressive sensibility. Many of Jaco's former bandmates from his tenure with the Graves Orchestra (including Graves himself) were a part of the Word of Mouth project.
Unfortunately, there was a dark side to Jaco's personality that was rapidly taking over. Plagued by a spiral of drugs, alcohol and mental illness, his behavior – in his professional as well as personal life – grew increasingly erratic and self-destructive toward the mid-1980s. Hospitalized after a violent confrontation outside of a bar one night in the late summer of 1987, Jaco slipped into a coma and never recovered. He died on Sept. 21, 1987.
But the tragic ending can't diminish Jaco's legacy of brilliant and innovative music that begins with jazz but insinuates itself into nearly every aspect of contemporary pop music.
Heads Up International paid tribute to that legacy with the 2003 release of Word of Mouth Revisited, a stellar recording by the Jaco Pastorius Big Band (led by Peter Graves), with a guest list that includes some of the finest electric bass players on the contemporary jazz scene: Victor Wooten, Gerald Veasley, Richard Bona, Victor Bailey, Marcus Miller, Jimmy Haslip and others – including Jaco himself, via the miracle of modern recording technology. Hailed by music critics and Jaco fans worldwide, Word of Mouth Revisited was perhaps the first recording since Jaco's death to truly capture the freewheeling genius that defined his music and his life.
Many of the same bassists return – and several new players of various stripes join in – for the March 2006 release of The Word Is Out, a further exploration of the Jaco Pastorius legacy. Along with Veasley, Wooten, Bona, Haslip and Carswell, the bottom end on this new recording is further augmented by the likes of Israel "Cachao" Lopez, Jr., Mark Egan, Oteil Burbridge and Will Lee. Other voices on this richly layered recording include trumpeters Randy Brecker and Arturo Sandoval, guitarists Hiram Bullock and Mike Stern, tenor saxophonists Ed Calle and Bob Mintzer, drummers Peter Erskine and Robert Thomas, Jr., steel drummer Othello Molineaux and harmonica player Toots Thielmans. And once again, Jaco himself makes an appearance – this time on "Reza," a track built around a bass line extracted from a live performance recorded on Sanibel Island in the mid-1980s.
"This second outing by the Jaco Pastorius Big Band offers further proof of Jaco's compositional prowess – an aspect that is often overlooked in assessing the legacy of 'the world's greatest bass player,'" says Bill Milkowski, who penned the liner notes to The Word Is Out (Milkowski is the author of Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic life of Jaco Pastorius). "Clearly, Jaco's music – sounding as potent, provacative and alive here as it did 30 years ago – has stood the test of time."