When Jaco Pastorius first met Joe Zawinul, the keyboardist and composer behind Weather Report, he had his introduction ready. “My name is John Francis Pastorius III,” he said, as Zawinul later remembered. “I’m the greatest bass player in the world.”
That line appears more than once in “Jaco,” an illuminating, compassionate new documentary, and its hubris comes across as both playful and deeply serious. Pastorius, who died tragically in 1987 at 35, was a sensation in his time. A maestro of the fretless electric bass guitar, he was revered for his warm, singing tone; his distinctly sinewy attack; and his mastery of harmonics, with which he could play chiming chords and a range of expressive effects.
In his brief but estimable solo career — and during his tenure as a member of Weather Report, a jazz fusion band then working at arena scale — Pastorius left an impression of irrepressible creative energies humming at a complicated frequency. He’s often remembered, reductively, as a tortured genius. The film is conscientious about providing a fuller picture, while acknowledging that there’s no way of knowing what he might still have become.
“Jaco” was produced and financed by Robert Trujillo, the bassist in Metallica, who has a formative teenage memory of Pastorius in concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. The film took shape over the last six years, as Mr. Trujillo conducted dozens of interviews and gathered a pile of archival footage, including home movies shot on Super 8. The result, directed by Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak and now available on DVD and Blu-ray, adheres to standard documentary form, but with enough rare footagand flickering insight to feel like something special.
The signs of Pastorius’s influence are widespread in pop as well as in jazz, and not just among instrumental heirs like Richard Bona and Esperanza Spalding. “Jaco” assembles testimonials from prominent rock and funk bassists (Bootsy Collins, Sting, Flea) as well as former friends and colleagues. Some of the most revealing firsthand material comes from an instructional video that Pastorius made in the early 1980s with the soul bassist Jerry Jemmott, an admiring peer.
Pastorius grew up near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., listening to a mélange of music, including broadcasts from Cuba, which he picked up with a transistor radio. “Many of the patterns that Jaco played on the bass were really conga patterns,” the drummer Peter Erskine, a close musical partner in and out of Weather Report, observes in the film.
“Jaco” does a fine job of evoking the Floridian idyll of Pastorius’s early years, during which he was a musician with steady gigs, playing neighborhood clubs. His first major touring gig was with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, a hotshot white Southern soul act. The film briskly moves from this period to Pastorius’s discovery by Bobby Colomby of Blood, Sweat & Tears, who brought him to New York to record his self-titled debut album
That album, which included his signature originals “Continuum” and “Portrait of Tracy,” and a head-turning version of “Donna Lee,” established Pastorius as an onrushing force. He had begun to circulate as a sideman, working with artists like Ian Hunter, whose solo album “All American Alien Boy” features a bravura 16-bar bass solo on its title track. In the film, Mr. Hunter recalls Pastorius as a figure of almost childlike focus: “Enormous ego, but innocent.”
The film delves deeper into another association, with Joni Mitchell, whose albums “Hejira,” “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” and “Mingus” are unimaginable without Pastorius; to call him the bassist on those sessions somehow undersells his role. Some of the most striking performance footage of Pastorius in the film comes from Ms. Mitchell’s 1979 tour with a band also featuring Michael Brecker on saxophones and Pat Metheny on guitar.6
Mr. Metheny is a conspicuous absence among the talking heads in “Jaco,” and there’s barely a nod to his 1976 album, “Bright Size Life,” one of the more significant entries in the Pastorius sideman discography. Where the film makes up for this and other flaws is in its treatment of Weather Report, which resembled a pressure cooker.
Describing the dynamic between Pastorius and Zawinul, who died in 2007, Robert Thomas Jr., the band’s longtime percussionist, drew a more volatile metaphor: “Two cobras in a very small cage.” Still, Pastorius made a defining contribution to Weather Report, on the smash-hit album “Heavy Weather” and especially in concert: A vital new four-CD boxed set, “The Legendary Live Tapes: 1978-1981” (Columbia/Legacy), provides all the proof anyone could need.
The film traces the subsequent trajectory Pastorius took from an aesthetically ambitious, large-canvas second album, “Word of Mouth,” toward increasingly erratic public behavior. A psychiatrist from Bellevue Hospital, where he was committed in 1986, turns up to reiterate his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. By the end, Pastorius was back in Fort Lauderdale, living in a park. He died of a brain hemorrhage after being assaulted by a manager of a nightclub.
“Jaco,” which portrays its subject in better times as a devoted father, is sensitive on the subject of his mental illness, and far less provocative than it could be about his death. (Not much is said about the club manager, not even that he served a mere four months in prison.) At one point, Mr. Erskine ruefully recalls how Pastorius had become a cartoon wild man, indulging people’s outsize expectations for his behavior. And Mary Pastorius and John Pastorius IV, his oldest children, each reflect touchingly on the father they lost.
Early in the film, during a clip from his instructional video, Pastorius seems to engage in similar reflection. “What drove you to this point?” Mr. Jemmott asks plainly, and the moment of embarrassed, shifty silence that follows is heartbreaking — a reminder that whether Pastorius was the world’s greatest bass player may actually be one of the less crucial questions to ask about him.
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