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Jaco Pastorius – Truth, Liberty & Soul 

June 30, 2017

Jaco Pastorius is to the electric bass as Jimi Hendrix is to the electric guitar.  Maybe what Jaco did was more profound: he made the supporting actor the star.

I had the good fortune to see Jaco live in person twice: once with Joni Mitchell and once with Weather Report.  Joni’s late 70s LPs were my intro to Jaco.  Jaco then led me from Joni to Weather Report.

Jaco’s solo 1976 debut was about showing off.  Granted he had a lot to show off.  He was still an obscure talent. However, five years later when Word of Mouth came out he was an international star. He had nearly eclipsed Weather Report’s founders Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter.

I recall a lot of anticipation for Word of Mouth.  I remember assuming it would be like Weather Report.  Side one is Weather Report reimagined as a big band.  Pastorius wrote all the songs on side one and arranged them magnificently. The secret weapon was harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans. Side two was more experimental and features Bach and a Beatles cover (“Blackbird”) along with two Pastorius originals.

Word of Mouth was a major statement from Pastorius.  He was clearly more than a novelty or merely a virtuoso on the electric bass. He was a Mingus caliber genius (a player, a composer, arranger and bandleader).  The original LP was mysterious – it had absolutely no credits. Years later when I got the CD, there were credits and I learned it was an all-star big band (e.g., Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, Michael Brecker, etc.).

Jaco assembled a big band and toured the world playing the songs from Word Of Mouth. His next release, Invitation, was a live album from the Japanese leg of the tour.  It is equally brilliant as Word Of Mouth. Maybe even better as the band had really jelled.

Since Jaco’s passing, there has been one more Word of Mouth big band release: The Birthday Concert. Jaco toured with the Word of Mouth big band worldwide for a couple of years. Unfortunately, there were just a couple of tidbit recordings: Invitation and The Birthday Concert – both of which were just samples of a typical concert. Until now!

Truth, Liberty & Soul is a full concert from the Word Of Mouth tour. A New York show from 1982 recorded for a NPR program radio program called Jazz Alive.  It was recently issued as a limited Record Store Day (April 2017) three LP set. It came out digitally May 26, 2017 (as best I know it is only available on CD or to download via Apple, it is not on streaming services).

The album sounds great and it is a thrill to get to hear a full concert vs. highlights like Invitation and The Birthday Concert. The core band is the same as Invitation with Toots Thielemans stealing the show. Victor Wooten (no slouch as a bassist) endorsed this album: “This is a rare find; like finding a never-before-seen Picasso or Van Gogh painting.”

The album opens with a jazz standard “Invitation.”  It is a great song for soloists to air it out and is equally great song for orchestrated blasts from the full big band.  Jaco has a great solo that shows off not only his amazing bass chops, but also his great musicality.

“Soul Intro/The Chicken” is a Pastorius original.  It is a playful funky big band chart with Jaco percolating under the orchestration and the soloists.  In addition to traditional big band instrumentation, Jaco adds a wild card: steel drums.  This is a hot cooking band.

Jaco made Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” his own on his solo debut.  Jaco brilliantly delegates the opening to his tuba player and you get a sense of Jaco’s concept that the bottom end is more than a foundation.  He lets the low end shine with tubas, trombone, bass-clarinet and of course his bass.  The soloing on this song is mind blowing.  There are some beautifully absurd sounds coming out of the instruments, Bird would be proud.

“Three Views Of A Secret” is a Jaco composition that would not sound out of place on a Jaco era Weather Report album.  With big band arrangements and Toots’ harmonica substituting for Zawinul’s keyboards.  This is a prime example of Jaco’s composition and arranging genius.

“Liberty City” is another Jaco original.  It has a bit of a “Birdland” feel.  Again a big band and Toots’ harmonica substituting for Zawinul’s keyboards. This is not just a band, it is an orchestra.  This is the sound of fun.  It is also a song where Jaco plays some very traditional bass. However, even when he does that, he is slightly cooler than the rest.

If you are going to be a big band, you have to play some Ellington.  Jaco deconstructs “Sophisticated Lady” via his bass – making noises, you did not think a bass was capable of making. Then Toots engages in conversation with Jaco.  The simpatico interplay between Jaco and Toots is truly special.  Jaco plays oddly beautiful,  Toots just plays beautiful.  It is amazing to be privy to this musical conversation.

“Bluesette” is the Jaco and Toots show again, although Othello Molineaux gets a nice solo on the steel drums.  Toots had his hand in writing this song so I assume it is a standard in his repertoire – he plays it comfortably.

“I Shot The Sheriff” is a very recognizable melody for most pop ears.  Jaco takes primary responsibility for the melody and lets steel drums and harmonica do the bulk of the soloing.  I always appreciate when jazz cats play songs I am familiar with so I can hear what they are doing.  It is fun to witness the deconstruction.

“Okonkole Y Trompa” is from Jaco’s solo debut.  Much of this version is a solo by master percussionist Don Alias.  For me this is the only tedious track of the concert because Jaco does not appear until the last couple of minutes.  When he does show up, he is practically whispering with a rhythmically complex percolating pattern.

“Reza/Giant Steps” was a staple of Jaco’s live set.  “Reza” is a riff similar to the “Mission Impossible Theme.”   It is a nice attention getter.  “Giant Steps” is a famous Coltrane song. Jaco use the famous “Giant Step” cord changes to solo his ass off as a transitional bridge between the two songs.

“Mr. Fonebone” is playful tune by saxophonist Bob Mintzer who was a major contributor to the Word of Mouth band.  It reminds me a bit of the Flintstone’s theme song.  It is a great foundation for the band’s soloists to strut their stuff. Ornately arranged – this is not a simple blowing piece.

“Bass And Drum Improvisation” is a Pastorius/Erskine composition.  The bassist and drummer had a shared history as the boy wonders in Weather Report. The song opens with an extended Jaco solo. If you have ever wondered “what’s up” with the Jaco hype, this solo is a good exhibit of why Jaco is amazing.  After an extended applause, it is Peter Erskine’s turn to solo.  His solo is a combination of restrained control with a threat he could go Keith Moon crazy at any moment.  Erskine keeps the train on the rails. The song concludes with Pastorius’ “Twins.  It is the full band in controlled chaos.  Despite the cacophony, the song ends with an Aaron Copeland pastoral feel.

“Fannie Mae” is a grand farewell. Originally a late 50s R&B hit for Buster Brown.   The band blows it up and it becomes a neat way for Jaco to introduce the band.

Jaco’s vision for a big band is genius. Unfortunately, as the concept was coming together, Jaco was becoming mentally unbalanced.  Within a few years, his mental illness would contribute to his untimely demise.  This album is the most complete portrait of Jaco’s Word of Mouth big band concept.  There are several exhibits from this period, but this is the only full concert recording commercially available.

An added bonus of the release are the extensive linear notes.  They include comments by the album’s producer Zev Feldman, jazz critic Bill Milkowski and several interviews with friends and disciples of Jaco.  Resonance Records knocks it out of the park with this archival release.  My only complaint is the vinyl edition did not come with a download and the album is not available on streaming services.  Listening on a LP at home is preferred, but given modern life, portability is a requirement.

 

 

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