Jaco 2014: “The Greatest Bass Player in the World”

For those dreading another Michael Jackson documentary, fear not.

This 2014 music doc profiles legendary bassist Jaco Pastorious “the greatest bass player in the world” as he previously used to introduce himself.

The film makes the convincing case that Jaco was right to do so, revolutionising the instrument after removing its frets to emulate the smoother sound of the double bass.

Guiding us from Jaco’s formative years in Florida to his tragic retirement sleeping in a park, via stints with Joni Mitchell and Weather Report, Pastorious emerges as a key figure in jazz fusion. Drummer Lenny White remarks that “the so-called jazz police were having fits” over Ozzy Osbourne fans going to jazz concerts.

For the filmmakers and fans, it was this willingness to break down musical boundaries that made Jaco such an important musician. He describes the importance of keeping an open mind, having embraced from a young age Cuban music, jazz, rock and everything in between; “I love country and western too - if it’s good I dig it!

Produced by bassist of the legendary Metallica, Robert Trujillo, the movie features every prominent bass player from Bootsy Collins to Flea, all of whom praise the double-jointed Jaco as the ‘Jimi Hendrix of the bass’ so influential that people have apparently tried to break their own thumbs to achieve his level of dexterity.

His transferral of conga patterns, symphonic textures and John Coltrane solos to the bass was so impactful that by the time he led his first recording in 1975, he had his pick of musicians, among them Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter who extol his virtues in Jaco.

Contributors note his ability to hear a song once and play every part of it on four strings, often without even holding the instrument, as demonstrated in invaluable live footage.

Joni Mitchell recalls Jaco’s overwhelming showboating, dancing around, flinging his guitar about and turning his amp up extremely loud to the overall detriment of the performance. Prejudicial assumptions about musicians ascribed his increasingly erratic behaviour to drug use, when Jaco was actually bipolar - a condition probably not helped by drug use.

It’s the personal insight from those who knew Pastorious best, mostly Weather Report’s Peter Erskine and Bobby Thomas, that give Jaco its depth and deliberation. They remember him as a familial, loyal friend who expanded the melodic and harmonic vocabulary of the electric bass, reinventing it as a solo instrument.

After two hours, the comparisons to Picasso sound indisputable - or at least more so than Kanye West’s similar claims about himself.

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