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Berklee Bass Talk: Was Jaco Overrated?

jaco-150This month we revive a column that first appeared late last year… Ed Lucie is the Associate Professor of the Berklee College Of Music Bass Department, and he will be happy to answer your questions! So feel free to ask away, and we will forward your questions to Ed.

Q: “There seems to be some debate among the newer generation of bass players as to whether Jaco was really as good as some say, or if he’s been overrated. In your opinion, how important was Jaco, and where is his place in bass history?

A: First, I am truly honored to be answering this question regarding if Jaco is ‘overrated’ by some of the younger generation.

I ask most of my students at Berklee if they have heard of Jaco. Most say yes, they have heard of him. Then I ask, have they heard him? Many have not, or perhaps just bits and pieces. When I play them some of Jaco’s playing, many just look unmoved. I think this is a generational perspective that cannot be avoided; they never experienced music, especially bass playing when there was no Jaco. They cannot fully appreciate his impact and now they are looking for just technique and gymnastics.

Jaco was a truly unique gift to music. He was one of the rarities that transcend their instrument and yet have such an amazingly personal sound that they can be recognized in one note. Others perhaps include Jimi Hendrix, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Jaco did not ‘play’ the bass, he exuded music through the electric bass guitar. His sound was him!

He dedicated himself to the electric bass guitar (he did not ‘double’). His technique, time, groove, use of natural and false harmonics, chords, and of course, sound, was unprecedented. He was a composer of depth. His knowledge and insight to harmony, harmonic relationships and orchestration was unique and evolving. He was also a band leader and someone who was not bound by any style or category of music. He played jazz, rock, fusion, soul, folk, classical, etc., and always as Jaco.

Finally, beyond the actual music, he was a powerfully inspiring presence who touched the life and soul of countless people. Overrated? I think not. In fact, I think more is to be discovered.

ed-lucie-150x150

About Ed Lucie: in addition to being a Berklee professor (and Berklee graduate), Ed has a Masters from the New England Conservatory Of Music. As a pro bassist, he has performed with Stevie Wonder, Buddy Rich, Warren Haynes & Gov’t Mule, Leo Nocentelli, and has performed both on Broadway and TV. You’ve heard him as a sideman on numerous albums, and perhaps have read his columns when he was a contributing writer for Bass Player.

For more info on Ed Lucie, visit his Berklee page.

 

 

25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Louis

    April 5, 2013 at 3:10 am

    Greta article….well said and expressed.

  2. Franz Vitulli

    Franz

    April 5, 2013 at 5:38 am

    IMHO Jaco is neither underrated nor overrated, I think he’s just been misinterpreted sometimes.

    Jaco was an all-round brilliant musician, bass guitar innovator, great composer and arranger, but many bassists, especially among my generation (I’m under 30) pay attention only to his ‘bassist’ skills – great chops, groove, soloing, etc.

    That’s pretty unfair for a musician who, as you said, was a “truly unique gift to music”. He was more a musician who happened to play the bass, than just a ‘bassist’.

  3. George

    April 5, 2013 at 6:34 am

    one of the things that that is overlooked about Jaco and other great musicians is that they have a great gift of melody in there playing that transcend’s any technical abilitys they have, all the greats have memomorable musical statements whether its simple or complex! its still the greatest mystery of music “MELODY” cause it comes from the heart which Jaco certainly had.

  4. Chris

    April 5, 2013 at 6:52 am

    Jaco’s entire nights were played at the level that most people get during a lucky inspirational lick. He transmitted joy through that instrument, and not everyone gets it. I didn’t get it when I learned Birdland or even as I marveled at Portrait of Tracy. When Jaco’s truth finally hits you, you become your own New Orleans funeral – mourning the loss and dancing the joy of gratitude for the gifts he left.

    You can’t teach an ant to fly an airplane – you have to be ready to hear it and you will. No one stands with him, sorry, no one. Sorry Stanley, sorry Esperanza, sorry Marcus, sorry James, sorry Bootsy, sorry Chris. Jaco stands alone, apart, above; he was a voice of ‘more’ painting spiritual vistas in microcosmic periods.

  5. Harry Miller

    April 5, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    One slight correction: Jaco did in fact “double.” He played a mean set of drums, and he was also a really good pianist. I think I remember hearing or reading that he did play the acoustic bass as well.

  6. Jonathan Moody

    Jonathan Moody

    April 5, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    He hit it on the head when he said that students can’t fully appreciate Jaco’s influence because they didn’t experience bass playing prior to Jaco emerging. He’s one of those few artists that with a couple of notes, completely changed how the electric bass was perceived in jazz, and as just a sideman’s instrument.

    Easiest way I can relate to that is when Victor Wooten’s “A Show of Hands” album hit. Sure, prior to that there had been bass solo albums, but that was the album that showed EVERYONE that it could be done, and how someone could do it. From then on, playing a solo bass piece was a much different thing altogether.

  7. Grant

    April 15, 2013 at 7:25 am

    I think that Jaco was a wonderful musician. However as far as being a virtuosic I think he was certainly overrated. Niels Henning was killing Donna Lee faster and cleaner before Jaco and Giovanni Bottesini developed a lot of the harmonic and chromatic techniques that Jaco used before the birth of Jazz.. As a composer he was wonderful and underrated, as a player he was really just another guy.

  8. Vic

    April 15, 2013 at 8:46 am

    Great article. Yeah, the “problem” is, to put Jaco’s impact in perspective, you really have to keep in mind all he brought to the table and WHEN he brought it. Not only did he go way beyond just playing “bass” on the bass, he did so during a time when truly innovative things were largely limited to musical style… like free jazz… not technique, like all he did with harmonics, percussive ideas, etc.

    Just so sad that he was tormented by such demons that his life went, and eventually ended, so tragically.

    But his legacy lives on… because even if they hadn’t heard him, they still heard of him, and that’s also something… remembering we’re looking at like around 30 years or so since the peak of his career!

  9. Jeff Michael

    April 15, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    It’s a good question…but the answer is definitely no. Jaco wasn’t a virtuoso bass player; he was a musical genius, period. I think the really miraculous thing about his eponymous debut, for instance, is not the bass playing (which was of course world-changingly spectacular) but the composing and arranging. The flash was nice, but sure, there have been flashier. But the music is always impeccable, whether he’s playing bass, or drums, or piano, or singing, or arranging for a big band, or a breakneck bebop duet for electric bass and congas…

  10. Jeff Michael

    April 15, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    And, like Jimi Hendrix, Jaco is the one monster you have to face, no matter what road you’re on. Like him, hate him, imitate him, aim to exceed him, whatever–sooner or later you have to address him. There’s no avoiding his presence.

  11. Bill Grenke

    April 15, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    For me the element that separates Jaco from 99.99% of the rest is the fact that he added to the vocabulary of bass sounds. His sound was a new sound when he hit the scene. No body played or sounded like him. And this was all before pro tools , copy & paste or nudge. What he did in the studio he could do live. Hearing his solo album and seeing him live with Weather Report was all it took for me to realize that I was witness to genius. I don’t he’s over rated or just another guy.

  12. Lee

    April 15, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    If they unmoved, it doesn’t surprise me. 10,000 videos and lessons about how to sound like a popcorn machine, mindless double-thumbing masturbation in E, and “slap switches” on basses and amps. People brought up on this stuff are not going to appreciate Jaco’s incredible touch, groove, harmonies, compositional skills, intonation, melodic gift, and innovations. So go ahead, publish another slap lesson. What do you expect?

  13. Pete

    June 5, 2013 at 11:52 am

    If Jaco was “just another guy” there would be no need for the original question. His impact is underrated now because it is impossible to explain the way he blew minds of everyone from wanbabe’s to the elite players of his time. As well you have over 35 years of other players standing on his shoulders and perhaps obscuring him to today’s young players. But no real bassist sleeps on him, either by embracing or avoiding him.

    What I think is under appreciated is his obvious skill beyond bass clef. If anyone wanted to get out in front on this they would work from the grand staff, or just build facility in reading treble clef lead sheets. It seems screamingly obvious that this was integral to Jaco’s melodic and compositional approach. That is my answer to “how and why should Jaco be relevant to today’s student of the bass?” Why did he sound and play si differently? Maybe because he wasn’t tied down to “the bass” and bass clef studies.

  14. Rich Vega

    June 5, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    I have always been a huge Jaco fan. However, it may sound like blasphemy to some, but I do feel that the bass style Jaco created has gotten out of hand at times. For example, players who think you have to be able to throw licks all over a tune to sound like that. Bass is fundamentally a supporting instrument above all else. Most musicians don’t have a clue how to just lay back and support the groove and the band as a whole. Carol Kaye and Jamerson were genuine, dyed-in-the-wool bass players – Jaco was more of a composer who happened to play bass, the difference is very, very subtle. Jaco was able to successfully walk the canyon tightrope between playing “lead bass” (a true oxymoron) and holding down the bottom whereas most of his imitators plummet to their doom. Jaco was basically a rock star in a jazz world. I would have loved to see him in a band with Hendrix. Was Jimi overrated? 😉

  15. Oscar

    June 5, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Im truly a big Jaco fan, and think he´s probably the most important influence of electric bass players in terms of development of sound and techinque, and I think that he may be one of the most important players to make jazz available for the young generation of the seventies.

    However, when it comes to make him the main inventor of active bass playing (so-called contrapunctal style, or melodic style), that I think too many do, i feel that people seem to forget the bass players of Bill Evans a decade before him, NHØP and Mingus of course. By this, I mean of course the bass playing of Scott Lafaro and Eddie Gomez from the sixties (Chuck Israels, I feel, was a bit more traditional, though a great bass players he as well. Too mee, these guys truly makes bass playing “seem like rocket science” just like Jaco, but then again – way before. Of course, these two were playing the upright, but I feel that its a common misunderstanding that Jaco was this lighting struck of bassists from nothing.

    im not especially fond of ranking the players towards each other, I think the problem of discussing Jaco is more a question of which camp you are based in. Either way, he was a great musician, seem to have very strong ears, good writing skills, very inventive techinique, and a true positive and open-minded spirit. To me these things alone makes him stand out – together with a couple of other guys (and women).

  16. Ted Schuhle

    June 5, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    I have read these comments and the article I knew Jaco and it was only for a short time before his death. He was a drummer a second generation musician and a very humble guy. When he composed music for a symphony he told me he could hear a 100 piece orchestra in his head before writing it down. If it wasn’t for the fact that he broke his wrist you would be writing a article for Jaco the drummer. Good thing he switched for all of us.

  17. Brad B

    October 28, 2013 at 10:03 am

    I’ll leave the answers to the critics. Opinions about art and value and merit cannot address what I love about Jaco. When I hear him playing behind Joni on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter or when I see him playing at the Hollywood Bowl on the Shadows and Light concert DVD I actually feel real sadness. A sense of loss. His humanity and his frailty and his contradictions speak to me more than his chops ever could (I’ve got a few of my own perhaps) And that instruction video he recorded before he died is heart breaking. I catch myself aping his lines at my gigs sometimes. And from time to time I hear myself sighing,
    ” Aahhh, Jaco” under my breath. Truthfully, I’m not affected like that by too many things. I would have liked to have been his friend I think.

  18. Robert Santoro

    January 19, 2014 at 3:19 am

    Jaco. Even his name was unique. As I was listening to his solo album, I knew this was not just another bassist. It was his phrasing and how effortlessly the notes kept cascading out of the neck. I had been playing 25 plus years and knew that, their was a genius at work here. I wasn’t going to be able to mimic that anytime soon. Overrated, no, if you really get his music.

  19. Luc Vandael

    January 21, 2014 at 11:12 am

    Jaco overrated?

    Not even a tiny little bit. There’s el. bass before Jaco an El. bass after Jaco.

    Jaco’s sound can be heard in all styles, even elevator music. His impact was and is so enormous it can’t even be measured.

    I never heard anyone play with that much spirit and fire then Jaco.

    as Peter Erskine stated: Jaco’s rhythmic execution, was the clearest and best articulated imaginable.”

  20. Mathew Gonzales

    January 20, 2015 at 12:46 pm

    I am not a fan of modern jazz first of all, it is more fusion than anything relating to actual jazz. The structuring seems to be very post modern I would say. I love classic jazz, and can see that a lot of the music produce around the era of Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane had to do with a culture of african americans who found what sounds like freedom within confined lines of music theory which was mostly learned only by middle class and upper class society in america. Jazz was born from blues, and both share something in common and that is struggle, and finding an escape ,a pseudo freedom for a time when freedom wasn’t as equal, and still we have less freedom compared to then if you consider privacy and less taxation more freedom etc. etc., anyhow what I am saying is that Jazz was directly linked to a culture, a life and times of society as a whole..things were moving and shifting rapidly and no one knew where it was going within the next 4 years from one election to the next. Jaco Pastorius is technical, but not to a point that I am impressed. I was raised to learn classical guitar, I took instruction and learned technique, I am intermediate advance level , and when I became a teenager I picked up an electric guitar and started to learn some of Wes Montgomery’s approach to playing notes (he played less because less is more,he had feeling). I do not believe that Jaco’s music is pinnacle of bass playing, for one reason alone : too many notes which don’t mean anything at all. I understand its his style and I respect that, but with all further do, hes only doing things that were done better by people before him that includes Hendrix. If you want to hear some modern bass playing listen to Jimi Hendrix working the low E and A string on the live album “Band of Gypsys” . I’d much rather sit down and play along with a group that approaches music with some roots in classical and blues than to play a Jack Pollock painting.

  21. Jerry Bone

    August 28, 2015 at 4:50 am

    The fact that Jaco is such a topic of discussion speaks volumes about his contribution to Bass guitar as we know it …Most who question Jaco’s worth are like me just struggling musicians who may never be read about or be talked about or respected all over the world as a contender …How many times have we heard and read the most popular jazz players of today speak of Jaco in the most high regard .. That alone must carry enough weight to make any bass man realize the importance and impact Jaco made on countless top shelf professionals who have dedicated their lively hood to their music ..Bottom line Jaco Pastorius will be remembered as one of the greatest musicians to walk this planet

  22. Mika

    August 28, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    TO the guy who pointed out that Niels Henning played “Donna Lee” tighter and faster, I’d lay dollars to donuts that Charlie Parker would take the chance to play with Jaco over Henning any day of the week. I’m not knocking Henning, not by a long shot, but your comment completely misses the soul of what separated playters like Jaco and Charlie Parker from the rest of the 20th century’s great Jazz musicians. The greats often drop notes and such but there is something that moves through the notes that makes them giants.

  23. Jason Rosner

    June 6, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    Old Thread, I know. But I have to say this:
    I started playing bass as a kid in the 80’s.
    There were shredding bassists everywhere already.
    When I got turned on to Jaco, it was his music and his sound that just floored me.
    I hadheard Stanley Clark play faster. Billy Sheehan play more notes.
    I love both of those guys, but it was very apparent to me that Jaco was
    His own dimension.
    There was just something about his music that mesmerized me, made me feel every mood conveyed, and it stimulated my need to explore harmony immediately.
    He was like the New Testament of composing bassists. His music still brings so many together.
    Not overrated.
    At all.

  24. Michael Bowman

    July 10, 2016 at 11:37 am

    Totally overrated!! I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and listened to Weather Report and his bass playing did not move me at all and not recognizable unlike everytime I hear a song by Slave you recognize Mark Adams, a Brothers Johnson song you recognize Louis Johnson, a Chic song you recognize Bernard Edwards, etc. His sample size of music is extremely small.

  25. Johnny Cilantro

    August 27, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    I began playing bass in 1972. It was because of my love of Jimi Hendrix that I picked up the bass at 14 (my best friend played guitar). My first inspiration was obviously Noel Redding. And then I head Cris Squire, and then Stanley Clarke. I would be impressed at each introduction to a new player. After Stanley it was Alphonso Johnson when I saw Weather Report. In my later teens I started listing to Charles Haydn, Ron Carter, Mingus and other jazz upright greats. Had the opportunity to see all the aforementioned upright players.

    And then, by chance, I got a copy of Jaco’s solo album. I was floored. Especially when I heard Portait of Tracy. I had no idea back in the 70s that a bass could sound like a Fender Rhodes. I bought a new 76 Fender P and tried my hand at some of his music. After my chops got better, I was able to play Portrait and Teen Town note for note. But it wasn’t until I got a little older that I really sat down and analyzed his playing over the chord changes and the musicians around him. I’m lucky to have seen him twice before he passed.

    He has probably been one of the greatest influences in my style there has ever been but I also incorporate much of the style and techniques I’ve learned from countless bass players. For example, I slide harmonic chords up and down which I picked up in the early 80 from Percy Jones of Brand X sliding one note. I just added more notes.

    For the gentleman who poo poos Jaco saying that all his notes don’t have meaning, I beg to differ. Having seen countless well known bass players live in bands from Yes and Brand X to Charlie Mingus and Kieth Jarret, I can honestly say that after 44 years of playing bass, I have never met a Jaco note I didn’t love.

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