Much has been said and written about the receiving and processing of music as a spiritual experience, either in the religious sense, as a way of attempting a connection with God, or in terms of feeling the lift to one’s emotions, the rush of excitement that a great piece of music well-played can offer to the human body and mind. The emotional aspect of musical transportation is pretty easily accessed, on its basest and highest planes. (Just ask any fan of screamo or Yo-Yo Ma.) And there are plenty of folks who will talk to you about how contemporary Christian artists as varied as Keith Green, Becoming Saints and Andre Crouch provide an aural pathway straight to the ear of God. For me, true incorporeal experiences with music are fairly rare. But when I hear the music of late, indisputably great jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, or see him play, I often feel as though I’m entering a genuine realm of the spiritual.
And yet, at the beginning of the documentary Jaco (2015), now streaming on Netflix and other VOD services, here this great musician sits, seen being interviewed by fellow bassist Jerry Jemmott just three years before his death in 1987, his celebrated ego still apparent in his mastery of his instrument, and in his relatively muted acceptance of Jemmott’s complimentary inquisitiveness. “You’re able to play, with real sincerity, every style of music, and not just every style, but all parts of a given piece at the same time on this one instrument, the bass,” Jemmott begins, all while we observe Pastorius’ body language begin to betray signs of a man caving in on himself, haunted by demons too inexplicable for counsel or applied chemistry. Jemmott continues: “Because of this, a lot of people have gone crazy trying to duplicate what you do, and many people have become big fans of the bass and given it a lot of attention. How do you feel about that?” Pastorius pauses, lowers his head for a moment, and then pops up with a laugh: “Give me a gig!”
At the point when this interview was conducted John Francis Anthony Pastorius III, nicknamed “Jaco” by his mother, had already risen from a middle-class life in Florida, the son of big band singer and drummer Jack Pastorius, to an association with nascent guitar great Pat Metheny in 1973, and then to an introduction to Blood, Sweat & Tears drummer Bobby Colomby, who arranged the circumstances for Pastorius’s debut album in 1976, a record which was considered a breakthrough for his instrument and featured jazz heavyweights such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Lenny White and Hubert Laws, among several others. By the time Pastorius began his run with Weather Report in 1976, he was widely considered, particularly by himself, as the greatest bass player in the world, and continued working with other artists like Metheny, Joni Mitchell and Al Di Meola while laying the foundation for the expansion of his own solo career.
Yet by the time he sat down to talk with Jemmott for that television interview Pastorius had already seen record company corruption and resistance to his brilliant solo album Word of Mouth morph into out-and-out anger from the suits over his refusal to allow himself to be sculpted into just another pop jazz fusion artist. The drugs and alcohol he had always eschewed in the early stages of his career were now routine indulgences and had undoubtedly contributed to his increasingly destabilized mental health, and by the time he self-deprecatingly answered Jemmott’s question his erratic behavior on and off stage had contributed to a situation where the greatest bass player in the world could not find a job. At the time of the interview, scrambling for work, battling bipolar disorder (for which he was hospitalized for a year) and living off the occasionally beneficial remnants of his reputation, Jaco Pastorius, who singlehandedly reinvented what the bass guitar could do, was a year or so away from homelessness, living in a city park, and only a few years more removed from a tragic, violent death.
The film about Pastorius, directed by Stephen Kijak (Scott Walker: 30 Century Man) and documentary editor Paul Marchand (Good Hair, The 50-Year Argument), details the meteoric ascent and ignominious crumbling of its subject’s life largely in familiar, talking-heads fashion. Those heads—among them Jemmott, Bootsy Collins, Geddy Lee, Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, Joni Mitchell and Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine— recognize the disturbing elements of Pastorius’ ego and some of his choices while indulging the usual sort of praise and secondhand confirmation of the unassailable talent of the man they’ve been gathered to celebrate. In its form, the documentary doesn’t find a correlative in the language of film to translate and illuminate the musician’s mastery, or especially his demons. However, thankfully, Kijak and Marchand’s relatively conservative approach is free of the sensationalistic desire to wallow in grim details of their subject’s decline. They trust the eloquence, the passion, the genuine sadness of the people who care to honestly remember who Pastorius was, what his music meant.
What makes Jaco special, transporting, is Pastorius himself. The film features a treasure chest’s worth of archival footage of Pastorius creating and expressing music, as well as interacting with family and his peers, in moments of triumph, exhaustion and vulnerability. Those eyes, guarded and haunted in moments of self-reflection, lose their furtiveness in performance, and Pastorius’s slight frame takes on a tensile, almost organic unity with his instrument as he wields it on stage. As this brilliant musician runs his fingers along the neck of his fretless bass, sliding and massaging and plucking notes and chords from his electric instrument and coaxing it into making sounds that are rooted in the familiarity of an upright acoustic bass yet somehow new, otherworldly, untethered by the usual expectations, set free to roam past the usual boundaries, it’s easy to believe, as I always have when listening to the music he made, that no one else could ever do what he did. (It’s somewhat shocking, and heartening, to see a close-up late in the film of fingers scampering across another fretless bass, liberating the sort of glorious arrangement of tone and emboldened, flirtatious, difficult melody that could only be Jaco, which pulls back to reveal the player is actually Jaco’s son, Felix.)
The music created by the merging of Jaco Pastorius with a bass guitar is among the only music I’ve ever heard which can make me begin to understand what a burdened soul suddenly shorn of unreasonable gravity might feel as it begins to float free. What’s left behind is not so much corporeal reality as the limiting expectations of what jazz, rock, classical, even country—all genres for which Pastorius professes love in the film—can ultimately become when given over to genius. The music Pastorius made joyfully reflects both the depth of his exploratory ambition and the arrogance necessary to sustain that ambition, while the sad circumstances of his shortened life insistently round out the warm buzz and staccato chord formations which emanate with no lack of mystery from his fingerboard. To its everlasting credit, Jaco recognizes the pain and blessedly indulges our desire to experience the fusion of all those warring elements within Pastorius’ music at its peak, to feel our collective souls, if only for the moment, fly, fly away, the beneficiaries of Pastorius’s troubled, transcendent mastery.