Brian Bromberg
The Jaco Project

In the parlance of players there was, quite simply, the bass before Jaco and the bass after Jaco. No other figure of his time so dramatically impacted on bass players and the course of music in general as did Jaco Pastorius during his brief but astonishing career. With the 1976 release of his groundbreaking self-titled debut, a bold showcase of his unprecedented facility and boundless imagination, Jaco single-handedly revolutionized the role of the electric bass guitar for all time, liberating it from strictly low-end time-keeping duty by putting it right up front with the horns, guitars, trumpets and piano and letting it wail with as much abandon, brains, heart and soul as any other instrument in jazz. And he continued pushing the boundaries as both virtuosic player and accomplished composer through his six-year stint with Weather Report (January of '76 through January of '82) and subsequent recordings and tours as a leader of his Word of Mouth bands. By the time he left the planet on September 21, 1987, just ten weeks short of his 36th birthday, Jaco had amassed a body of work that still stands as the Holy Grail among bassists. Today both his legend and legacy loom even larger.

As bassist Brian Bromberg put it, "Jaco's got an aura that's just unbelievable. He's in a class unto himself and always will be. With all the great bass players who have come on the scene in the past 25 years, there hasn't been anybody in my estimation that has even come remotely close to what Jaco did on the bass. "He could say more in one note than most any musician I've ever heard on any instrument."

Given that kind of imposing stature, pulling off a Jaco tribute project -- a full recording of material composed by or closely associated with the late, great bassist -- would be a daunting task for any bassist, no matter how accomplished or virtuosic. As Bromberg noted, "Those performances were so great, 'What could I possibly add to the music?' It's almost like sacred ground in a way. You don't mess with Jaco."

And yet, in undertaking The Jaco Project, Bromberg did indeed "mess" with Jaco's music while paying a heartfelt homage to his early bass inspiration. His renditions of Jaco staples like the funky "Come On, Come Over," the gorgeous "Portrait of Tracy" and hauntingly beautiful "Continuum," the chops-busting "Teen Town" and the suite-like "Three Views Of A Secret" carry some fresh, imaginative touches in the arrangements while still conveying the spirit of those familiar Pastorius anthems.

Take his version of the super-funky "Come On, Come Over" (sung by Sam & Dave on Jaco's debut album). While it is suitably greasy (courtesy of the soulful call-and-response between Bill Champlain and Bobby Kimball) and features an aptly kicking horn section, Bromberg utilized a five-string bass for an added depth that wasn't on the original. "There weren't five-string basses back then so he never played that low note," Bromberg explains. "There was no bottom to the track. As producer, I needed that pulse and that bottom, so I went with the five-string."

A more blatant example of tweaking comes on Bromberg's arrangement of "Teen Town," which originally appeared on Weather Report's 1977 landmark, Heavy Weather. Rather than burn through the challenging head at a breakneck pace, as Jaco did so brilliantly, Brian takes it at half-time and plays the line on upright bass against a grooving hip-hop flavored undercurrent. As he explains, "My God, that's such an amazing track, where could I possibly take It from here? Play it the same way he did it? No way in hell! So I played upright on it and slowed it down and made it a little more modern-sounding. I had to figure out ways of doing things arrangement-wise that really made it my own. I'm certainly not going to try to out-Jaco Jaco or copy his thing. That would be ridiculous."

Another example of putting his own personal stamp on a track comes on "Three Views Of A Secret," which originally appeared on Weather Report's 1980 album, Night Passage. Rather than playing it as the waltz time vehicle that Jaco envisioned, Bromberg latinizes the piece and changes the time signature from a slow waltz to an upbeat seven. The tune features a beautiful solo intro on upright bass, then midway through Brian switches to fretless electric for some virtuosic blowing in the second half. Bob Mintzer, a former member of Jaco's Word of Mouth band, is also prominently featured throughout the piece blowing with Herculean fury on tenor sax. Bromberg also takes some liberties with "Portrait of Tracy" (from 1976's Jaco Pastorius) by arranging the piece in five and adding strings and percussion.

Elsewhere, Brian renders "A Remark You Made," Joe Zawinul's poignant ballad feature for Jaco's signature fretless voice (which originally appeared on Heavy Weather ), on upright bass and tackles "Continuum" (from Jaco Pastorius ) with a whole battery of basses, including upright, fretless electric and acoustic piccolo bass for some particularly melodic soloing. No Jaco tribute would be complete without a rendition of "The Chicken," a funky anthem which saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis originally wrote for the classic James Brown band of the '60s. Jaco's first-ever recording, cut on a friend's reel-to-reel tape recorder back when he was 16 years old, was of "The Chicken" with Jaco himself playing all the instruments (drums, bass, guitar, alto sax, recorder). He continued to feature that tune on his sets throughout his professional career, playing it on the bandstand right up until the end. Bromberg's version, performed on upright bass, is suitably swaggering and features more killing tenor sax work from Bob Mintzer. (Catch Brian's quote from Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance" in the midst of this mess 'o funk).

Perhaps Bromberg's most personal touches come across on his own lyrical ballad "Tears" and on his version of "Slang," a solo bass showcase which became a popular feature of Weather Report concerts. Brian's "Slang" picks up on the funky repeated motif that Jaco established with his primitive looping device back in the '70s, but his inventive rendition develops into an animated conversation between fretted and fretless basses. Bromberg holds nothing back here, utilizing two-handed tapping and the virtuosic slapping technique that he is so noted for (neither of which Jaco ever acquired in his own bass vocabulary). An alternate take of "Teen Town," featuring a ripping piccolo bass solo that sounds as raucous as any rock-fueled guitar solo, closes out The Jaco Project in high-flying fashion.

Originally a drummer growing up in Tucson, Arizona, Brian switched to upright bass in high school and eventually came under the sway of Jaco Pastorius, the shot heard 'round the bass world. "I was a big Jaco fan, obviously," he recalls. "I was an acoustic bass player before I ever picked up an electric bass. In fact, he's probably the reason why I even wanted to play electric bass because I was a staunch upright purist then. But when I heard him play 'Portrait of Tracy' it just completely freaked me out. That actually impressed me much more than 'Donna Lee' did (Jaco's take on a Charlie Parker bebop anthem that blew minds back in 1976) because it was so unlike anything anybody had ever heard before. It was like 'Holy @#$%&*! I want to learn how to do that!" Brian would eventually make a personal connection with Pastorius in the early '80s. As he recalls, "First time he heard me play I didn't even know he was there. He snuck into a club when I was playing with Monty Alexander in Florida many years ago at a place called Arthur's Steakhouse. That must've been '81 or '82. And then I met him in Phoenix when he came to town with his Word of Mouth big band in '83. Alex Foster was in the band and I knew Alex from playing with him in New York. So Alex introduced me to Jaco and I was surprised when he said he already knew me. We ended up hanging out after the gig until four or five o'clock in the morning, just playing. And I have to tell you, man...when all the people left and all the screaming was done and the band split and it was just me and him hanging out, he became a different person. And his playing in that intimate setting was incredible. His playing on stage was always amazing but when it was just Jaco and me, his playing was breathtaking. And as we were playing I just had to stop. I actually stopped playing and just stood there and listened to him because the music was so remarkable. It wasn't about pyrotechnics or anything, it was just him with his ridiculous ears playing this incredibly beautiful music, and I just stood there in awe. That was my first real hang with him. I saw him in New York a couple of times over the years after that, but that first encounter with Jaco was really memorable."

Bromberg mentioned that one of his aims in undertaking The Jaco Project was to help expose Jaco's music to a new audience. "One of the things that I thought would be really cool was if some of these tunes might possibly break through to smooth jazz radio and have so many people that would never ever have heard of Jaco or his music actually hearing it for the first time. For me to be able to make that happen, to spread the word about Jaco and his music and reach a whole audience that's never even heard of him...that would be an incredible honor."

Clearly, Jaco's music stands on its own and has stood the test of time. For his part, Brian Bromberg is just another die-hard Jaco fan who is hoping that more people will "Come On, Come Over" and make the discovery of this great, timeless music from the pen of the self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Bass Player."

-- Bill Milkowski


Bill Milkowski writes for Jazz Times and Bass Player magazines. He is also the author of "JACO: The Extraordinary And Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius" (Backbeat Books)