Feb. 12 (Bloomberg) -- John Francis Pastorius III re- invented his instrument by heroically going against the grain of the times, making the electric bass sound more acoustic even as contrabassists were desperately working with new technology to create a more ``contemporary'' amplified sound.
He has been called the Jimi Hendrix of the bass guitar.
Imagine the chutzpah of this young white guy from southern Florida, still relatively unknown in the mid-1970s, introducing himself to such African-American acoustic bass virtuosos as Rufus Reed and Ron Carter: ``Hi,'' he would say. ``I'm Jaco Pastorius, the best bass player in the world.''
This from a musician who didn't even play a ``real'' bass. Before Pastorius, few people could imagine an electric bass without frets. He was a trailblazer. ``If you can back it up,'' he said, ``it's not bragging.''
Watching ``Jaco Pastorius Live in Montreal,'' a new DVD of a concert in 1982, you are stunned by his effortless fretlessness, as it were, with its limitless gradation. Equally startling are his guitar-like chords; his outrageous technique (made possible in part by his double-jointed thumbs); and his harmonics from outer space. Nobody ever walked an electric bass with more authenticity.
He was, however, beginning to lose it by the time he played at the 1982 Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. He had smeared some sort of faux-indigenous war paint on his face, and his eyes kept losing their focus, as though he was thinking about going back to whatever planet he came from.
In the biography ``Jaco,'' jazz writer Bill Milkowski tells of how, in that same year, Pastorius drove into a hotel lobby in Japan on a motorcycle, fell off and passed out; a dead squid was discovered under his T-shirt.
In Hawaii, Pastorius disappeared for a day and the police found him in the mountains, naked, with axle grease smeared over his body. He walked down the middle of a busy thoroughfare in California in his pajamas, heavy traffic on both sides of him.
In Italy, he threw his bass into the sea. He slipped off a hotel balcony in Rimini and fell two stories to the ground, where he moaned: ``Uh-oh. The world's greatest bass player just broke his arm.'' Bassist Stanley Clarke called him the ``Sid Vicious of jazz.''
Pastorius died 20 years ago on Sept. 21, 1987, at the age of 35. By then, he was homeless and had become a sort of underground tourist attraction, playing pickup games and sleeping on a park bench at the 3rd Street basketball courts in Greenwich Village.
Though he had a long history of substance abuse, ``the basic problem was a manic depressive condition coupled with a chemical imbalance in his brain,'' Milkowski writes in the 2005 edition of his book.
Back in 1982, Pastorius and drummer Peter Erskine had recently left the superstar fusion group Weather Report. Not long ago, Erskine recalled how, in Montreal, Pastorius ``left the band stranded on stage while pursuing one of his demons. This turned what was supposed to be a short intro affair into a movement from a Bruckner symphony.''
Erskine's deft touch and cool, confident body language in the midst of all of that madness are impressive on the DVD. Don Alias was one of the few top percussionists who knew how to play pianissimo. Trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonist Bob Mintzer are at the top of their form. Othello Molineaux adds a fresh treble edge on a steel pan.
Although this might be called a historic recording, the packaging illustrates the old crack about something being ``close enough for jazz.'' The box is a generic black affair, not unlike a bootleg DVD. There's no date anywhere on either the box or the disc. Composers aren't credited. Pastorius's franchise rendering of ``America the Beautiful,'' which -- like Django Reinhardt's ``La Marseillaise'' -- always makes me want to stand up and salute, is listed only as ``bass solo.''
In a sense, the entire concert is a bass solo, and you do not want it to end, which is something you can't say about most bass solos.
``Jaco had the light of inspiration coming through him,'' Herbie Hancock says on the CD that comes with Milkowski's biography. ``He was always reaching for new perspectives. Many musicians are afraid to do that.''
``Jaco Pastorius Live in Montreal'' is available in Europe from Universal Music for 25 euros.