How does one define a masterpiece? Is it personally subjective, or it is just another word we use for status symbols? In an essay on bass player Jaco Pastorius’ 1976 self-titled debut album, scholar Uri González offers an older definition: “in the old European guild system, the aspiring journeyman was expected to create a piece of handicraft of the highest quality in order to reach the status of ‘master.’ One was then officially allowed to join the guild and to take pupils under tutelage.”
Pastorius’ debut album certified him as a master musician; he leapt from “anonymity to jazz stardom, earning admiration both from the average musically uneducated concert-goer to the hippest jazz cat,” and he gained a following among an “ever growing number of adept students that, still today, study his solos, licks, compositions and arrangements.” Pastorius’ solo on his version of the Charlie Parker tune “Donna Lee,” especially, helped redefine the instrument by, first, inventing the electric bass solo.
The “Donna Lee” solo, Pat Metheny writes, is “one of the freshest looks at how to play on a well traveled set of chord changes in recent jazz history — not to mention that it’s just about the hippest start to a debut album in the history of recorded music.”
Whether you like Jaco Pastorius’ music or not, it’s beyond question that his playing changed musical history through a transformative approach to the instrument. In the video at the top, producer Rick Beato explains the importance of the “Donna Lee” solo, an interpretation of a jazz standard played on a fretless bass Pastorius made himself, and creating a sound no one had heard before.
Beato’s is a technical explanation for those with a background in music theory, and it highlights just how intimidating Pastorius’ playing can be for musicians and non-musicians alike. But technique, as Herbie Hancock noted in a blurb on Jaco Pastorius, means little without the musical sensibilities that move people to care, and Pastorius had it in abundance. “He had this wide, fat swath of a sound,” wrote one of his most famous collaborators, Joni Mitchell, in tribute. “He was an innovator…. He was changing the bottom end of the time, and he knew it.”
One of those changes, from “Donna Lee” to the end of Pastorius’ tumultuous life and career in 1987 involved moving the electric bass into a melodic role it had not played before. This not only meant leaving the lower root notes, but also crafting a bright, round, lively tone that for those upper registers. “In the Sixties and Seventies,” writes Mitchell, “you had this dead, distant bass sound. I didn’t care for it. And the other thing was, I had started to think, ‘Why couldn’t the bass leave the bottom sometimes and go up and play in the midrange and then return?’” She found the answer to her questions in Jaco.
Hear Pastorius’ original recording of “Donna Lee” further up, and see a live version from 1982 above to take in what Mitchell called his “joie de vivre.” The song, which already had a venerable jazz history, is now considered, González writes, “the quintessential bass players’ manifesto.” Or, as conga player Don Alias, the only accompanist during Pastorius’ famous solo, put it, “every bass player I know can now cut ‘Donna Lee’ thanks to Jaco.”