Changing the world with only four strings
by Mark Wilson
Every type of person has a certain person they idolize and look up to. Specifically, musicians look up to a broad horizon of players. Whether it is Charlie Parker, Pat Metheny, Buddy Rich, or even modern players, John Francis Anthony Pastorius III is one of those musicians that a vast majority of bass players look up to. Bridging the gap between Caribbean, Jazz, Reggae, and Funk music, he single-handedly changed the world of bass guitar with only four strings. John changed his name early and became the only post 1970 musician to be known on a one name basis with all music fans of all varieties everywhere in the world. That name is Jaco. Heralded as "The World's Greatest Bass Player" by Bass Guitar magazine, Jaco is without a doubt the most influential bassist of all time. He brought new and bizarre sounds to modern music. Using a technique called Harmonics; Jaco composed the beautiful piece, "Portrait of Tracy" for his girlfriend at the time. Also known for his incredible ability to interpret any song to make his own, Jaco covers very complex songs such as the Charlie Parker piece entitled "Donna Lee". He set the bar for bass, crossing many boundaries, composing complicated pieces, and wooing audiences' world wide. His composition "Continuum" would bring the bass to an entirely new level, which has yet to be surpassed.
After a while, it becomes inevitable that musicians acquire a certain training to hear their instrument in a song. For bass players, Jaco came along and played "Portrait of Tracy" using sounds that were completely unheard of to bass players. Using a technique
called harmonics; he wrote an entire song. Harmonics were used mainly by upright bass players, for hitting notes they couldn't reach. This technique was hardly used after classical music dropped from the limelight. Most bassists when hearing the song have a hard time believing that the bass guitar; an instrument that hones such low notes, could produce bell-like noises. Ignorant musicians of the world may refuse to believe that the song is indeed complicated. It may not sound incredibly complex, but in order to play it properly, one needs a bass without frets. Once that is achieved, one needs to be able to stretch seven to ten inches effortlessly and then play two to three notes at the same time. Jaco took bass to such a high level, that it eventually became physically demanding to play his songs. Portrait of Tracy not only is physically complicated, but it pushes and pulls the aspect of timing. Playing on, and off the beat, Jaco could send a listener into a type of trance, inevitably causing a head to bop, or a foot to tap. The complexity of the song can be achieved by using two fingers and a thumb to pluck the chords, but Jaco used only two fingers.
Perfect pitch is the ability to hear any note, be able to sing, or play the note perfectly in tune, and do it again a week or a month later. Jaco had to have had perfect pitch in order to play the pieces he did. Transcribing a Charlie Parker tune by ear, and on a completely different instrument, it is not arguable that Jaco had perfect pitch. Aspiring to play the tune, Donna Lee is coveted by horn players worldwide. As if the song wasn't hard enough on a saxophone playing a blistering four notes a second, Jaco played it by pressing down strings, using two fingers, and even played it slightly faster than the original recording. If that wasn't enough, after playing through the tune once, he then
continues to solo over it, and then improvises over it. If that still isn't enough, he did it with a conga player keeping time. The tune Donna Lee will cause jaws to hit the floors and head to spin, but while this phenomenon is occurring, heads and feet will still be holding the rhythm. Through this song, Jaco proved that the bass can be a front stage instrument as opposed to the background instrument it was once thought to be. Through Donna Lee, Jaco pushed the bar for aspiring bassists up one more notch.
One advantage of having a fretless bass is the ability to create a unique sound to the bass. While most basses produce a "thump" sound, fretless basses create a "mwah" sound. The tone, which is best described as mwah, is a sought after fretless-tone that bassists world-wide search for. Jaco's composition, Continuum, is a classic example of this coveted tone. Having a more melodic approach as opposed to the intense, pulsating, in your face rhythms, Continuum proves that bass is a beautiful instrument. Jaco's flowing melodies and vibrato that compares to the technique of classical cellists could make a grown man cry effortlessly. Using his signature "up and down the neck" technique, Jaco still manages to get his point across using 16th notes, and his flawless technique heighten the complexity of the song. Not only is this song incredibly complicated and beautiful, Jaco recorded it flawlessly in two takes. The most incredible part of that is the fact that he recorded one track, and then played the exact same track over top of it, creating a hauntingly wonderful effect on the song. This talent not only floored the drummer whom Jaco was working with, but also blew away the studio technicians, who had no idea what they were in for. Jaco, because of his huge ego,
couldn't understand why they were so blown away. After all, he was the greatest bass player to walk the Earth.
Jaco ripped the frets out of his fretless using pliers, then filled the slots with wood filler, and coated the fingerboard with marine epoxy. The rest, they say, is history. Jaco Pastorius did for the electric bass guitar what Jimi Hendrix did for the electric six-string guitar. They both smashed down the walls of limitations as to how exactly either instrument could be played, threw out all of the rule books, and set the new standards that are still in effect to this day. Jaco's music continues to confuse, influence, and amazing listeners worldwide. His blistering fast lines in the Charlie Parker cover, Donna Lee, his unheard of harmonics in Portrait of Tracy, and his hauntingly beautiful lines in Continuum. Bass Player Magazine interviewed L.A Session Bassist Neil Stubenhaus who taught at Berklee when Jaco did a workshop there in the early 70's.
"Everyone wondered how Jaco how that incredible sound, and there he was just exposing his secret to us. I mean, there was nothing like it, watching this guy, relatively unknown, humble as you please, just handing out his knowledge and showing people different things he was doing that were so obscure and beyond everyone's imagination. Seeing Jaco walk through that door and into that room at Berklee was worth the cost of tuition. He played Bach's 'Chromatic Fantasy' for about two minutes, and that was it! The jaws were on the floor - on the floor! It was over! Perhaps there's more to this electric instrument than people are giving credit for, and this guy is living proof. Jaco was the first one to come along and forcefully stake out a unique place for himself strictly on the electric bass guitar. For a lot of us, that was significant."
Only few musicians have lived to see the day where they are recognized on a one-name basis across the world. Bono, Slash, Prince, and Madonna are a few that have lived to see the day. Even classical musicians weren't heralded on a one-name basis until after they died. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Vivaldi didn't live to see their names known to the popularity they are today. Even so, these four men are still considered the four pillars of
Classical music. In today's society, the relatively new genre of music, Jazz, is forming it's pillars, with someone new doing something new every day. Names such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie may come to mind to some, but to many low-end bass players, simply, the name "Jaco" comes to mind.
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