Bass players


I came across a piece that I wrote on bass players a few years ago for an online review. I realised that I hadn’t publsihed it here, so here goes. The brief was to write about records that I’d listened to that year – not necessarily new – that I thought told a story.


I hate those women chanseurs who do pleasant versions of the great jazz songbook, but following the twists and turns of Elvis Costello’s career leads down some strange byways (The Juliet Letters and The Brodsky Quartet?), and against my better judgment it led me this year to Diana Krall’s CD The Girl in the Other Room, which features Costello, now Mr Krall, as co-lyricist. Most of the good things on the CD stem from his contribution – his lyrics steer a song like ‘Departure Bay’ away from the saccharine onto an ambiguous track between the comfort of the past and the discomfort always present in its undertow. but pianist-singers always have a poor cover of a good song jostling for attention, and Krall’s anaemic version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Black Crow’ sent me back to the original on Hejira, which in 1976 was one of slew of early recordings in which Jaco Pastorius reinvented the electric bass.

Krall plays only with the best, and Christian McBride plays bass on her version. McBride does fretless as well as any current player, and honours Pastorius with a cover of his ‘Havona’ on his Sci-fi (2000). but he’s too polite to upstage “the girl on the front cover.” Hejira, in contrast, is hi-jacked by the 24-year old Pastorius, whose fretless bass creates much of its distinctive sonic space, even though he plays on only four of the nine tracks.

Apart from Hejira I’d known of Pastorius’ work with Weather Report, and with Pat Metheny, but not his solo work. Chance favours the prepared mind, and chance had it that there were a couple of Jaco’s solo CDs in my local discount shop, new to me but recorded before his headlong rush to early death. Going back is going to that moment when in rock, ‘progressive’ was about to be confronted by punk. and there are similarities between progressive rock and so-called ‘fusion jazz’ (was this ever more than a marketing label?). The technique can breathtaking, but at its worst fusion jazz shares all the faults of progressive rock; a sprawling self-regard which obliterates the audience.

The post-Weather Report big band sound of Word of Mouth (1981) has standout tracks (burn ‘3 Views of a Secret’ and ‘Liberty City’), but also the vacuous ‘Good Question’. The 1976 Jaco Pastorius is tighter, and his version of Charlie Parker’s ‘Donna Lee’ is refreshingly compact. But fusion didn’t go with punk; contrast Weather Report’s 1978 ‘Punk Jazz’, mostly an exercise in syncopation, with the 2005 garageband jazz of Acoustic Ladyland.

Somewhere in Anga Diaz’ sleeve notes for Echu Mingua (2005) he writes of his bass player Orlando ‘Cachaito’ Lopez that he “seems to be able to play anything”. Diaz’ mostly realised ambition is to unite “Cuban, African, and DJ cultures”. Black American as well, it turns out, since the percussionist includes subtle and intriguing versions in his set of ‘A Love Supreme’ and ‘Round Midnight’. His rich and sometimes unexpected sound is deeply rooted in modern cuban music.

And Cachaito does seem to be able to play anything. He was one of the young(er) guns drafted in by World Circuit’s Nick Gold to make the Buena Vista Social Club swing, but his own eponymous CD, which has been out for a few years now, is several sensibilities away from BV’s leisurely evocation of mob-era Havana. it is the sound of musicians testing their invention and their musical cultures against the free trade in global(ised) sound, and creating a set in which you can hear them listening and experimenting, but which could have been made only in their particular location and within their their traditions. Just like Echu Mingua, in fact, so it is no surprise to discover that Diaz plays percussion throughout on Cachaito’s CD.

Cachaioto has a track dedicated to Charles Mingus, ‘Tumbao no. 5‘, which has the mood of Mingus even before it quotes the great bassist. Pastorius’ Mingus connection is more direct. Mingus contacted Joni Mitchell after hearing Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977), on which Jaco played bass, which led to her Mingus CD (1979), also with Pastorius. All bass players come home to Mingus in the end.

The picture of Jaco Pastorius is from Wikipedia, via Jean-Luc Ourlin on Flickr: CC BY-SA 2.0.


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