Raider of the Lost Arts

The Bass Solo

The band hands the stage over to the upright half of the rhythm section. This guy looks weird, like he just walked straight off a beach in his white drawstring pants, a tucked-in surfer tee, and long black hair dangling out of a rainbow knit cap. And that face…large eyes and mouth on a wide mug combining to comprise an alien-esque countenance. What starts coming through the PA sounds just as otherworldly, weird and wonderful tones from a care-worn Fender that run the gamut from whale song to lion roars. Beautiful polyphonic serenades give way to nightmarish napalm blasts and back again, slow to fast, all of it eerily precise. A disparate array of genres is on display, from pop to funk to Afro-Cuban and the jazz fusion he was generally providing while on his best behavior with the rest of the band. Flurries of pitch-vaulting natural harmonics burst forth, making him sound more like Jimi Hendrix than a bass player (was that a “Third Stone from the Sun” quote he threw in there?!). His large hands defy mental reconciliation with an utterly precise intonation that never wavers. He activates a sampler pedal and builds a harmonized backing groove over which he can improvise before strolling offstage to the roar of the awed audience.

That was a typical solo segment from trailblazing bassist John Francis Anthony “Jaco” Pastorius III (1951–1986), compulsorily granted by one bandleader or another during the late seventies and early eighties (Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, etc.). Like Andres Segovia’s proselytizing for the classical guitar, only more impressive considering the instrument’s predominantly supportive role up until then, Jaco did more to elevate the profile of the bass guitar as both harmonic/rhythmic lynchpin and lead instrument––and proffered more groundbreaking innovations––than just about any other purveyor who’s ever taken up the low-end crusade.

Jaco helped continue the bass’s in-progress diaspora from rear to center stage by dispensing with several musical and mechanical traditions.

Jazz had originally coöpted the double bass from the classical realm, substituting fingers for bows and cheap suits for tuxes. Dropping the bow warmed up the tone considerably, but at the expense of some of the previously enjoyed––if a bit droney and arrhythmic––treble clarity. It was a shame, because suddenly swing and bebop had stone-cold mercenaries like Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro, Art Davis, Ray Brown, Jimmy Garrison, Paul Chambers, and Ron Carter maniacally walking all over the place in an exhilarating new way, keeping pace alongside the soloing instruments in small and large ensembles, but it was often difficult to discern the tonal shape of their lines (and typically, most of the band not only had to drop out but the soloist also had to play higher up on the neck in order to be fully heard, understood, and ergo appreciated).

After having lost his upright to an implosion brought on by Floridian humidity, Jaco acquired what would become his signature ’62 Fender Jazz, and he proceeded to hybridize it, removing the frets himself to liberate the upright’s warm, fluid tones from the instrument’s cumbersome fragility. Intonation is always a daunting prospect with any fretless instrument (one wishes Sting had opted for frets more often during the Police’s middle period), requiring years of training to perfect, and no one before or since has handled the challenge with such preternaturally precise panache as Jaco Pastorius.

Even plucked with fingers, the electric bass projected a much clearer signal than an upright, thanks to both onboard and amplifier equalization and volume control. Jaco took full advantage of this, liberally heaping on the midrange in order to cut through the burgeoning mix of loud instruments as both a soloist and rhythm section member.

Others had been at it for years by then; Leo Fender’s company was the first to mass-produce an electric bass––the perennial industry standard “Precision,” in October 1951, just prior to Jaco’s birth––and practitioners like Bill Black (Elvis Presley), James Jamerson (Motown), Carol Kaye (The Wrecking Crew), and Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) were some of the first notables to “go electric.” It wasn’t until the sixties, though, that anything resembling virtuosic soloing emerged in the popular realm, embodied in the likes of The Who’s John “Ox” Entwistle, The Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, Cream’s Jack Bruce, and Chris Squire of Yes.

The seventies gave rise to the technicians: Jaco, of course, but contemporary Stanley Clarke as well, who like Jaco was also a composer, aspiring soloist, and bandleader, who had to veer slightly away from jazz to bring wider attention to the fuller potential of their instrument.

Jaco got under the skin of many purists with the release of his self-titled solo debut in 1976, but his infusion of more proletariat genres like R&B (Sam & Dave actually dropped guest vocals on the second cut, “Come On Come Over”…vocals…on a jazz record…!), Venice beach conga jams (the album kicks off with the Coltrane/Davis standard “Donna Lee” with Jaco taking the main melody on his instrument, with only Don Alias’s congas as accompaniment; the same instrumentation holds for “Okonkole Y Trompa,” with the addition of Peter Gordon taking the main melody on French horn while Jaco does one of his extra-terrestrial signature 16th note natural harmonic riffs in 5 time as “accompaniment”), calypso reggae funk (“Opus Pocus” features Othello Molineaux and Leroy Williams on steel drums), and romantic balladeer instrumental jazz pop with a twist (“Continuum”), opened the crossover door and exposed Jaco, his music, and his instrument, to a wider audience. He also showed that there were new ways to shine even when in accompaniment mode; “Kuru/Speak Like a Child” and “(Used to Be a) Cha Cha” practically crackle with his intricate ghost-note articulations that make the grooves lock and pop even tighter. “Portrait of Tracy” might be the ultimate bass solo, with its neo-classical polyphonic orchestration (highly audible natural harmonic melodies over standard low notes), chordal constructs, and identifiable motifs, it wouldn’t be out of place on a Debussy or Rachmaninoff record.

Subsequently, it was champions like Geddy Lee of Rush and Mike Rutherford of Genesis carrying the low-end torch in the progressive realm, with Black Sabbath’s Terry “Geezer” Butler and Steve Harris of Iron Maiden rumbling in the heavy metal sector, though all of their output couldn’t really be classified as anything beyond aggressive support. Mark King of Level 42, Kajagoogoo’s Nick Beggs, Billy Sheehan (David Lee Roth, Mr. Big), and even John Taylor of Duran Duran kept the bottom end interesting in the pop realm. “Primus” Les Claypool even snuck in a full-on solo during “Tommy the Cat” on their first album, 1989’s live set Suck on This, and Chili Pepper Flea (who had William “Bootsy” Collins and Sly Stone’s Larry Graham as influences) was certainly asserting himself. Session aces/clinicians like John Patitucci, Michael Manring, and Tony Levin also helped push the bass forward, but they were all living in the house that Jaco built, to the point where even now, any up and coming bass player worth their salt––even mind-blowing Millennials like Lake Street Dive’s Bridget Kearney and solo artist/session musician Tal Wilkenfeld (Jeff Beck, Herbie Hancock, etc.)––ends up just sounding like Pastorius.

1986 was the year the bass solo died, or at least went into a coma and got put on long-term life support; Metallica’s Cliff Burton, who had been expressing his structured yet feral musicality during instrumental breaks on “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth),” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and “Orion” perished in a bus accident on an icy mountain road during a European tour in support of the legendary album, Master of Puppets. Pastorius had succumbed to injuries sustained in a self-instigated bar fight just six days prior to Burton (he was sadly a substance-abusing, self-sabotagingly unemployed, occasionally homeless, and destitute manic depressive on a downward spiral at the end there). Since then, and upon entering the grunge era, the solo and its practitioners have gone underground (in the case of Blues Traveler’s feloniously obscure Bobby Sheehan, interpret that literally); there are still plenty of technicians and clinicians—YouTube and Instagram boast scads and droves––but no personalities with the draw or corporate support to pique aesthetic and/or commercial interest enough to bring the form out of semi-retirement. Like the guitar and drum solo, only more so because of its predominantly supportive designation, it’s the dated relic of the not so distant past when ability was publicly touted and pursued on any and every instrument, no matter how anathema it might have seemed for the particular instrument or genre in question. It seems unlikely, especially since pop has mostly abandoned real basses for synths, that the low-end solo will ever make a comeback to the exhibition ring, force its way out of the supportive dungeon to the free-expression air above and prove its merits once more. But that’s okay; for now, we can just throw on some Weather Report and reminisce as the low-end brilliance of “Teen Town” or “Birdland” washes over us like soothingly reinvigorating ocean waves.

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