Review Summary: Fantastic bass playing, subpar composition and ensemble skills.
There is an analogy I’ve heard about music and dynamics that has stuck with me for nearly as long as I can remember playing music. My high school band director often used an analogy for when we played all loud all the time. He continually slapped himself in the face. Not hard, but enough so he felt it. As he stood there slapping himself, he explained that eventually, his face became numb and he could no longer feel the slapping. The point he got across is important- if any sort of music is played at the same volume all the time, the climaxes in the music no longer become climaxes. All musical effect goes over the audience’s heads. Now a more evolved musician, I can take this analogy and apply it to other aspects of music. Overplaying, repetitiveness, and other stigmas in musical performance all take away from musical effect.
Jaco Pastorius is often regarded as the greatest electric bass player who ever lived, even he considered himself the best. When calling for an audition with Weather Report, he introduced himself as such: “My name is John Francis Pastorius the Third, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.” No one had even heard of Jaco Pastorius at that point, but he knew his talents. As Weather Report progressed into one of the leading fusion bands of the 70s, his claims began to appear true. His self-titled solo album comes like Jaco proving to the world that yes, he is the greatest bass player in the world. The album justifies that statement.
However, notice the word choice of that superlative. Bass player does not imply any skill in songwriting, orchestration, arranging, producing, or anything but simply skill on the bass. That is Jaco’s flaw. In environments where he simply puts his own voice into other compositions, Jaco is brilliant. The album opens with Jaco’s version of one of Charlie Parker’s (although it is debatable that Miles Davis composed it) most difficult and well-known bebop compositions, Donna Lee
. Jaco plays at the tempo and with the finesse that Bird would have played it. With only sparse and rather unpredictable congas accompanying him. A song like Donna Lee
allows Jaco to show off his technique and that he does, even when he gets into his own improvisation. His speed and technique is impeccable and unmatched. Still, his improvisation and his melodic lines are nothing spectacular. Nothing really jumps out as being a particularly interesting line; it is just a bunch of fast bass runs. As the song is only 2 and a half minutes, it doesn’t really matter, because the listener will certainly be floored with Jaco’s technique and speed.
The lack of interesting melody is a certain foreshadowing to the rest of the album. Jaco’s compositional skills lack heavily. The music is repetitious and often times Jaco overplays. Come On, Come Over
enters directly from Donna Lee
, a great transition. Then, a nice groove settles in with synthesizer, some horns, and a vocalist. From there, absolutely nothing happens except Jaco overplaying the entire ensemble and very repetitive and stereotypical vocals. Okonkole Y Trompa
revolves around congas and inventive bass harmonics. Once again, the groove is solid. The horn melody sings lyrically but never goes anywhere after playing for a while. The bass harmonics get old and boring after a while, as the song plays for over 4 minutes of that groove. Continuum
is one of Jaco’s best compositions, featuring dreamy Fender Rhodes piano and Jaco. It resembles something Weather Report might do, with a much bigger focus on Jaco. The production of the song is very spacey and dreamy, with Jaco jumping all across the fretboard and harmonizing with himself beautifully.
Jaco Pastorius’ self-titled debut is not a bad album by any means. His bass playing is some of the best playing ever recorded. However, he just doesn’t blend with some of the ensembles he puts himself with. Electric bass and a string ensemble? Even Jaco can’t make it work. The string ensemble featured on Speak Like A Child
takes a prominent feature, but the string arrangement (done by Jaco) is just ok. Nothing amazing and spectacular. Most of all, Jaco never realizes that even though this is a solo album, he does not have to be the prominent voice during every second of the album. Bass players (myself included) can learn a lot about technique and bass solo style from Jaco, but nothing about composing and arranging. This is a landmark for bass playing, but not so much in jazz music.
Portrait of Tracy