The first few days of quarantine, I struggled to enjoy anything at all. Then I started to feel the gravitational pull of Jaco Pastorius’ 1981 album ‘Word of Mouth’.
I hadn’t given the record much attention until a couple of months ago, when I went through a major Pastorius phase.
Now, with corona taking over our lives, the album reveals even more of its identity. We’re going through a period of extremes.
There’s chaos and peace, solitude and togetherness, beauty and anxiety.
There’s Crisis. And there’s John and Mary.
Complexities of life
Ever since I heard Jaco’s solo piece Portrait of Tracy (‘Jaco Pastorius’, 1976) I’ve been fascinated by his use of light and shade.
He could pair supernatural dexterity with an all-knobs-up-to-eleven racket, just like Jimi Hendrix, all the while writing the most sensitive and beautiful compositions and bass parts.
Jaco may have been a virtuoso and a prankster.
A brilliant and sometimes disastrous performer.
Or even a homeless person with a severe mental disorder, overwhelmed by success and the pressures that came with it.
A comeback kid in the making, tormented by disappointment and instability.
But for me, what he did best was capturing the complexities of life with his highly individual combination of tone, chops and composition.
He did that in a heart-stopping way on Portrait of Tracy, which he wrote for his then-wife.
It’s just 02:22 long, but that solo bass piece, encapsulates everything that makes life hard and worthwhile at the same time.
John and Mary
Hearing ‘Word of Mouth’, reading Bill Milkowski’s excellent biography and thinking back about Portrait of Tracy made me realize how much of Jaco’s life went into his art.
That’s why Bill Milkowski quotes from the entry for the word ‘eulipion’ in ‘Websters New World Dictionary’:
“Music that is inseparable from life.
Sound that embodies the lifeforce and evokes visceral sensations.”
When you hear the kids whispering and giggling over the introductory piano chords of John and Mary—the children Jaco had with Tracy—, followed by a joyous steel pan-driven theme, it almost feels like viewing the world through Jaco’s eyes.
And then when the orchestra and flute take over and Jaco croons along … Wow!
‘The world’s greatest bass player’
Five years after his eponymous debut was released, everything was different.
Judging from the acclaim of the jazz press and his worldwide audience, Jaco Pastorius had actually become what he had always claimed to be: the world’s greatest bass player.
He enjoyed giant success as a member of Weather Report and as the bass player in Joni Mitchell’s band. He also started his own Word of Mouth Big Band.
In February 1980, Jaco signed a deal with Warner Brothers and the record company promptly trusted him with a $125,000 advance—about $390,000 in today’s money.
The world seemed to be Jaco’s oyster. But everything was NOT alright.
Jaco had essentially lost his family, with Tracy retaining custody of the children.
It seems like from that moment on, Jaco was rudderless. As his friend and steel plans player Othello Molineaux said:
“That Tracy thing haunted him for the rest of his life. It was deep in his soul.”
Jaco became increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol. His performances were often hit-or-miss. Sometimes downright disastrous.
Meanwhile, signs of mental illness came to the surface. Dr. Erskine, father of Peter Erskine—who sat on the drum stool with Jaco and Weather Report—thought it was manic depression. Later on, Jaco’s condition was diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
Whatever it was, ‘Word of Mouth’ proves that Jaco had the clarity of mind to compose, arrange and produce the most challenging music of his career.
Crisis and consolation
Crisis opens ‘Word of Mouth’ like ball lightning in a living room.
Bill Milkowski, who knew Jaco personally, wrote:
“This volatile piece captures the anger and internal chaos Jaco must have been experiencing at the time […] Crisis was uncompromisingly honest, expressive music that represented how Jaco felt.”
As a listener, you’re being attacked from all sides for five minutes straight, with the frenetic bass loop and the jumping hi-hat the only things to hold on to.
Jaco seriously pissed off the executives at Warner’s when he insisted Crisis should be the first track on the album. But he didn’t cave for their concerns about commercial suicide.
Right after the chaos of Crisis, the gentle melody of Three Views Of A Secret—a beautiful performance by Toots Thielemans on his trademark harmonica—bring consolation.
The 12 minute long Liberty City, featuring Herbie Hancock on piano, ends the first side of the album in an optimistic, light-hearted and exploratory mood.
Bach’s Fantasy and Blackbird by The Beatles
In a way, the second side of ‘Word of Mouth’ follows a similar path. The leading track is the most ‘difficult’ one: a rework of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy.
The first notes of the high-speed bassline almost seem like an echo of the bass loop in Crisis. And when the orchestra comes in, that’s when the song goes into uncharted territory. It feels like an abstract sound painting of sound. And it’s not easy on the ears.
Bach’s piece seamlessly segues into a breezy rendition of Blackbird, originally released on the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ (1968).
I’m always touched by the father-and-son dynamic Jaco and Toots Thielemans had going on. On Blackbird, they emphasize that bond by sharing the lead, with Jaco running in and out of phase with Toots’ melody.
FUN FACT: Paul McCartney revealed that the guitar part for Blackbird was inspired by Bach’s Bourrée in E Minor, which he and George Harrison used to play as a show-off piece in their teens. Jethro Tull probably made the most famous arrangement of Bourée inn the rock era—it appeared on their 1969 album ‘Stand-up’. No doubt Jaco must have seen the Bach link and placed the two songs side by side deliberately.
At the end of Blackbird, a few distorted bass notes signal the final chapter in a trinity. We’ve had Chromatic Fantasy and Blackbird. Now it’s time for the tormented fusion of Word of Mouth.
Jaco unleashes his demons as well as his inner John McLaughlin.
Finally, just like he did on side one, he wraps everything up and restores the balance with a long piece: the heartfelt John and Mary.
When one day I look back at this strange quarantine period—and let’s hope it’s just a one-off—I will remember Jaco’s ‘Word of Mouth’.
“There was Crisis. And there was John and Mary“.
Bill Milkowski, ‘Jaco. The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius (Anniversary Edition)’, Backbeat Books 2005.