Portrait of Jaco

by Steve Rosen (1978)

Jaco Pastorius, at 26, has developed bass playing capabilities putting him at the top of the technical ladder. He combines an R&B feel with strict jazz lines to produce a style like none other. Using a distinctive muted sound and employing harmonics in a nouveau fashion, he is in constant demand as a session player.

He was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and moved to Florida at age 7. Just a few years later he picked up the bass and as he himself puts it “Hasn’t been out of work since.”

Pastorius is a reluctant interviewee. He has done very few in his career and takes no pleasure in them. But once talking he is a fountain of knowledge and while his replies are usually short, they are always to the point.

In the midst of working on a new album with Weather Report, the bassist gave a few minutes of his time. “I don’t usually do interviews but since you’re here, I may as well” was his initial comment and after much self-control this interviewer decided to remain. The following is what transpired.

Were you involved in high school bands?

I was never in a school band but lots of high school bands with friends, just R&B bands and dance bands. We’d play at parties and night clubs. I started playing at night clubs on bass just before I turned 16. I kept doing that until almost joining Weather Report.

I did all my learning in the clubs. Playing eight sets a night. It was real killer stuff; going in at 9pm and leaving at 6:30 in the morning without days off. Doing that for a year and a half is always fun.

Did you ever take any lessons?

No. I just kept my ears open. I heard good music and that’s about it. I’ve heard music all my life. My father was a singer, and he’s still working, but my family broke up when I was young. I heard my father when I was a young baby so it sort of genetically stuck.

Can you read music?

Yeah, self-taught. It’s easy, all you’ve got to do is be offered a show gig when you don’t know how to read anything and that’s the only way you can make money. Then you learn how to read overnight. You concentrate and learn by ear and trial and error. That’s how I learnt.

Was Weather Report the first real professional assignment you had?

Oh, no, I’ve done tons of professional things. But this is the first notoriety with a jazz band, or whatever you call this kind of music. I wasn’t going to come out with anybody playing records until I did something on my own. I made my solo record (Jaco Pastorius) and then I decided I’d come out and work.

I’ve done lots of gigs. I played with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders for a long time but never recorded with him, and I played with Paul Bley. In Fort Lauderdale, Miami, I played with: Temptations, Nancy Wilson, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, anybody, comedians, show gigs. That’s where I learned all my reading, in show gigs. I just went out on all gigs.

Have you always played a Fender?

Yes, I have a ’62 fretless bass and the one with frets is a ’60. I took out the frets myself and refinished it. I have a few other basses for practicing and stuff. A lot of times these will be on the road or maybe they’ll be over in Europe so you’ve got to have an extra one if you want to play at home.

What do you use at home?

Just Jazz basses. I don’t like Precisions. They’re too muddy plus they don’t have that back pick-up which you need to get the sound.

Have you changed the basses in any other way?

No, they’re exactly the same. My fretted bass that I play on stage has three pots in it; one for each pick-up and then a tone control. But it’s one of those basses that had procentric knobs. Really old Fender Jazz basses had just two knobs and outside of each knob was a tone control.

That’s the way that used to be, but I just put on regular stock knobs because they’re louder; those old pots were too soft. They sound great in the studio but when you’re playing on stage I just had to change the settings too much every time.

I was usually in groups where we did lots of original material or I was doing arranging or something. You get a real good workout;’ it’s another way of going to school. A lot of kids went to school, I just went to clubs. I hit the street and that was it.

What kind of amplifier do you use?

I use an old Acoustic 360. One of them is the very first one I bought just about ten years ago. I use two bottoms, both stock.

Have you ever tried an Alembic bass?

I don’t have any time to play other basses. When I’m not working I’ve got to go home, I’ve got kids at home. Last year I was on the road nine months and the year before that I was out ten months. So it doesn’t give you much time for listening to stuff and checking things out. I’m just more or less doing the same thing I was doing eight years ago; that’s essentially what I’m doing. That’s probably about the last time I bought a record; eight years ago.

Do you listen to your record (Jaco Pastorius) often?

No, never.

It’s good.

Oh, I know it’s good. I’m sure it hasn’t changed since I last heard it. If there were some new notes on there or something I’d want to check it out. No, it’s real good music.

Do you have any plans for a new album?

Possibly, yeah. I had no plans at all for the first album, it was just something I felt like doing then and I just did it. I felt the times was right to put out some music like that. I might have to do one again around this fall, do another solo record.

I have a lot of music and I’d like to record it while it’s still sort of fresh.

I’ve got music dating back so many years that still sounds good but I like to come up with new stuff too and then you keep writing new stuff and you have a ton of music that never gets played.

It doesn’t really make that much sense. It’s like you do so much work and there’s a cause but no effect it doesn’t go out and people don’t hear it. I don’t write the music for myself, I write it to get played. But this year I think I’ll have some time in the fall to do a record. It’s going to be nice.

Do you use the Acoustic 360 in the studio?

Yes, mostly direct. On my solo record I used the Acoustic and direct. On most other records, it’s mainly direct.

Do you aim for a certain sound when you play live?

Yeah, I turn the bass on the amp all the way up because I only use the back pick-up on the bass. I never use the bass pick-up on the front so I have to compensate quite a bit with the amp. I have a sound that’s like an R&B-type sound which is real punchy and hits. An Acoustic never distorts which is why I like to use it. It really just comes out. I’ve gone through a direct box through the PA and I’ve distorted the whole PA. But the Acoustic can take it, it can take anything.

Where do you set the volume?

I don’t play very loud. I just play about 2 1/2 or 3 on stage and that’s the same volume I play with everybody.

Do you use pedals and effects?

No. Last year I started experimenting with something on stage. A couple of times on records I’ve played the bass twice; I play it and then I play it again and get it to sound like two basses. It almost sounds like it’s being phased but it ain’t, it’s like natural phasing. On stage sometimes I want to get that sound so I’ve had a little digital delay hooked up so I can get that.

You have the echo through one amp and then have the straight amp. I like to use that when I’m soloing because it really puts a nice ambience on. I don’t use it for much of anything but I just like having it. I like it on harmonics.

What inspired you to start working with harmonics?

I’ve always done it, nothing inspired me at all. When I first started playing the bass I did it. In fact someone played me a tape recently of what I was playing eight, nine years ago and it sounded like now. All the harmonics were there and everything. I just thought they were all part of the instrument. I didn’t question it because I had no one to judge by. There were no records I could turn on and hear someone doing that. So I just tuned up and ‘Hey, man, that sounds good.’ So I hit that and there were some notes and hit a bass note here and hit a couple of those (harmonics) and got some chords going. It was that simple.

Could you explain in theory what you’re doing in ‘Portrait of Tracy?’

Well, the main melody is in C. The first thing I did was, I was holding down a C with my first finger and with my third and fourth I’m getting a G note on the D string which produces a D9 up top and on the G string you’re getting a 3rd which gives you a major 7th and then you come down and get the A on the D string.

It’s very tight but it’s all right there. Everything but the Eb has a natural harmonic; you have to press down on the A string at the B note (second fret) and then you have to touch the string on top of the Eb.

If you don’t have big hands you won’t get this. You touch the string on top of the Eb or it’s really a D sharp and you get the D sharp on top of the B. So it’s like you’re using your first finger as a capo. So then you get the D sharp and pick the open F sharp and B right from the D and the G string and you hit a low E and you also touch it a bit and you get a G sharp or a minor 3rd. So you’ve got the five, the nine, the three on the bottom, and a major 7th in the middle. And you’ve got the bass note because you’re hitting the bass note and the G sharp.

I had never thought about doing this. For instance I was monkeying around with ‘Portrait of Tracy’ for years and then if I wanted more notes it was just common sense.

I said, ‘If I’ve got an open A string and if I hit the harmonic on top and get a C sharp, if I press it down on the B fret I’ve got to get one on D sharp. I mean it’s that simple, that theory has to continue to work. And on the very end of the song I put my finger down and play F sharp and B and E and hit my open E and then I press down my other finger and I’ve got a high G sharp, D sharp and A sharp on the bottom which gives you a major 7th flat five chord. So it’s just stuff like that. I mean all that stuff is right on the bass, it’s just a standard tuned bass.

Have you ever done anything with other tunings?

A couple of times, yeah. I’ve got some original music written like that. I’m saving that stuff, that stuff is really out. It sounds really good, too. I have some really out sounding stuff at home. But there’s enough happening with regular tuning, that’s rough enough.

What kind of strings do you use?


Have you tried Fender strings?

Oh well of course I had to when I started because that’s all they were really making at the time. To me Rotosound has what no other string has and that’s pure harmonics and the closest to playing harmonics in tune. All harmonics are flat on the bass and the higher you play a note the flatter they get. So when you play something like ‘Portrait of Tracy’ I actually tuned the G string a little sharp when I recorded and the D string a little sharp.

Because I was playing most of the bass notes on the E string and then a couple on the A string, the top two strings had nothing but harmonics so I could tune them up sharper. In that way I get closer to the actual intonation you wan to hear. But on stage I don’t have time to do that so I won’t be hitting too many harmonic chords and stuff. If you’ve got brand new strings it comes out pretty close.

When you first started playing did you ever use a pick?

No, I used my thumb first. I used my thumb for about a month and then I went right to my fingers

How did your right-hand technique develop?

I never practiced with my right hand at all. It just naturally goes. I use my first two fingers to pick and I use the other two fingers to mute as well as my thumb if I’m jumping around. The hardest thing to do is just to get the stings I’m not playing to shut up. If you’ve ever heard Donna Lee or any of that stuff you can see I’ve put in my time because I don’t think I make too much noise.

What do you think of someone like Stanley Clarke?

I really don’t know his music. I don’t know anybody’s music. I don’t know anybody’s music since eight years ago, I don’t know people at all. I didn’t know Weather Report’s music before I joined them. Because I just didn’t have the opportunity to hear it and I didn’t have the time.

What goes through you when you’re playing a solo?

I don’t really think of scales. There are certain things you have to learn all your life and apply them. I never think of scales I just think of the chords. If I’m in Ab7 I think Ab and F sharp, Gb actually, and C. I think tri-tone a lot depending if they’re dominant chords because those are your key notes. That’s about it. Outside of that I just think melodically.

Charlie Parker was your main influence?

I wouldn’t say he’s my main influence but he’s definitely a big influence on me; he definitely can play some great lines. I really like the way Charlie Parker plays. Herbie (Hancock) is a big influence on me, James Brown, people like that. The people I said before; the Beatles, Sinatra.

Sinatra is a killer. He was a real big influence on me, because that tone of his voice is in the same range I play in. It’s a sort of baritone tenor sort of a range. I’ll just be sort of playing in there; when I get in that range I’m just really singing and concentrating on the quality of each note. That’s what’s hard. Not matter how fast I’m playing I’m thinking of each note as it goes by and really trying to get the most out of each note.

Is that what you practice?

Well, through the years you’ve got to practice triadic stuff. This is what bass players haven’t practiced therefore it sounds like I’m doing something sort of new. Which in fact it probably is but I just know because I would hear piano players warm up or you hear piano players take a solo or anything and they’re just really playing triadically . And that’s the hardest thing to do on the bass; play in triads. To play fast in triads. Because it’s so physically hard to do.

So you work in triads scale wise. You practice dominant triads or major 7th triads. You can just run through any diatonic scale just running arpeggios off every chord member of that scale. That’s some of the hardest work that you’re going to get on the bass and just the different ways you can do it. Going across all four strings and trying to keep your hand in one position as long as possible and of course then knowing the best place to change over. There aren’t any books you can buy to learn how to do that.

It’s physically hard and when you get the strength you can start to play. That’s what’s so good about playing every night. For years when I put in all these ridiculous hours where I’d hate to think I’d ever have to do that again but if I hadn’t done that I definitely wouldn’t be able to do what I’m up to. You’ve got to have that strength and you don’t get that practicing at home. That’s just on the job training.

And then you think about it – I went all the way until after playing with Cochran which was six years ago and I quit Wayne’s band and I had never practiced. And I was already playing all sorts of stuff. I have never practiced Maybe right at first try8ing to figure out what the notes are on the bass. Outside of that I had never really practiced; outside of knowing where the notes were and playing in different keys. That was it, man, I just went out and worked. And that didn’t take but a couple of days to do that; all you have to do is think mathematically. Everyone is always trying to think too musically. You’ve got to get the basic mathematics down and then you can go anywhere from there.

After Wayne I practiced for a couple of years, maybe even just one year but pretty hard. A couple, few hours a day; anything from one to four hours a day. I put in some real strong time.

But I concentrated in such a way where other people would probably have to put in 20 hours to every one of mine. When I concentrate nothing else even exists. You get so involved and then it’s like a motor skill, it’s completely bam! in your hand and there’s no way of really losing it. You might lose the adeptness or just really having a good technique but you really won’t lose the moves. And then after you’ve got the motor skills down you can start thinking melody. Because you know how to go everywhere.

Is it difficult to play a fretless bass?

The hardest thing is worrying about intonation. That’s really when the good strong technique comes in because your hand is just fort of molded into the right spacing.

Is it two different techniques playing a fretted and fretless bass?

Not really. The fretless is just having to hit the notes in tune. That’s the only difference. But the technique itself is pretty close to the same. The vibrato on a fretless is legit, you have to play like a cellist, you’ve got to roll it. And then on a fretted you’ve got to pull the string like on a guitar.

Do you play cello or acoustic bass?

I can play acoustic bass a bit but I don’t like to. I’m a soul man, I like to play R&B or at least have fun with it. I like the acoustic bass, I love the sound of it, and I can play it pretty good actually. But first of all living in Florida the weather is so bad humidity-wise. I had a real good bass once and it just fell apart, I mean literally fell apart in a million pieces. I woke up and it was in a pile in the corner because the humidity just pulled it apart. At the time I really couldn’t afford to buy a really great bass to stand up to the weather and being a pragmatic guy I did the best I could and I took my Fender and just kept playing that.

So when everyone else is saying that isn’t music and you’ve got to play the big bass and all this bullshit I say, ‘Well, dig this.’ And now I can play and everyone else is sort of crying. It was just that sort of positiveness, it was just being pragmatic, I had to work, I had babies on the way, and to hell with that ego trip. That ain’t jazz? Bullshit! This is jazz and I’m playing the jazz.

Because I can improvise and I can play new stuff and I know tradition pretty well too. And I think those are pretty good ingredients to be called a jazz musician. I ain’t hanging on to the past. I ain’t putting people down that do that, don’t get me wrong, because lots of people aren’t capable of doing anything else but hold on to the past.

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