How Jaco Pastorius Invented the Electric Bass Solo & Changed Musical History (1976)

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Jazz Leg­end Jaco Pas­to­rius Gives a 90 Minute Bass Les­son and Plays Live in Mon­tre­al (1982)

Leg­endary Stu­dio Musi­cian Car­ol Kaye Presents 150 Free Tips for Prac­tic­ing & Play­ing the Bass

What Makes Flea Such an Amaz­ing Bass Play­er? A Video Essay Breaks Down His Style

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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