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Robert Trujillo on “JACO”

Metallica bassist talks about producing the new doc on Pastorius' life and legacy

Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo (photo: Jeff Yeager)
Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter & Joe Zawinul, 1978. Peter Erskine: "I snapped this in a Shinkansen station; looks like Osaka."

Few films seem to define “labor of love” as accurately as JACO, the long-anticipated documentary on the trailblazing, tragic life of bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius. Initiated by Pastorius’ kin and adopted by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, who became a producer with the family’s continuing input, the movie traversed three directors, many, many recuts and a gradual yet successful ascent on the festival circuit to reach its DVD/Blu-ray release on Nov. 27. (An official soundtrack album is also available.) The effort paid off, because JACO is essential viewing, featuring rare and previously unseen footage, photos and audio plus a deep bench of interviewees, including the bassist’s family, his vital collaborators (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell) and the rock and R&B celebrities (Carlos Santana, Sting, Flea, Geddy Lee, Bootsy Collins) who felt his influence profoundly. Most important, JACO balances Pastorius’ brilliance against his psychological unraveling with sensitivity and honesty.

We caught up with Trujillo in New York in September, where he held forth on the film and on his eclectic musical development in Los Angeles. A funk and fusion kid at heart, Trujillo, 51, also a veteran of Ozzy Osbourne’s band, Suicidal Tendencies and the groove-metal outfit Infectious Grooves, is an unintentional raconteur who turned a brief promotional Q&A into a near-two-hour tour through his personal jazz-rock history. Here are some highlights.

You Lookin’ at Me?

In 1985 I ran across Jaco at the LA Guitar Show. There was a loud, distorted sound coming out of one of the rooms-I couldn’t even tell it was a bass. The sound was coming from the room across from the one I was in. I was the first person in there, and it was Jaco. This was at a time when Jaco was in a different place in his career: Things were a little more quiet [professionally], and you heard a lot of stories about him.

I was speechless. I basically took a knee, and from about 10 feet I just watched him play. He had a straight face; he wasn’t smiling. And then he started to settle into some of his basslines and also play some of [R&B session legend] Jerry Jemmott’s type of bassline-just mixing it up. The room filled up, and he just glared at everyone in the eye, and he didn’t say a word. It was this piercing glare, like he was sizing us up, like he was saying: “I can take any of you out. I can play better than you and I can kick your ass.”

The Metallica Police

Some Metallica fans get mad at me for spending all this time and energy making a documentary: “What the hell is he doing making a film when he should be concentrating on the next Metallica record?” And then with the Jaco fanatics, the old-school, they’re upset that [the bassist from Metallica] has commandeered this project about Jaco Pastorius. That’s just the world we live in. But there’s a bottom line: I’m happiest when I have a young person come up to me, which has happened several times, and say, “Man, I heard about your project and went out and bought Word of Mouth,” or “I checked out Weather Report.”

Help Me

Licensing Joni Mitchell’s music and footage was a huge challenge, in that there are these battleaxes from the publishing companies-“Joni gets no less than [tens of thousands of dollars]!” But Joni was like, “I’m a filmmaker and I understand,” and she totally helped me out. Joni is old-school in the business realm. She’s tough, but at the same time she’s respectful.

For four years we tried to reach out to her and nothing ever happened. And then I met her at a Clive Davis party in L.A., and before she ever came onboard to interview with us we had dinner, and she came to see me play at the House of Blues. We had a mutual friend of ours, a guy called Matt Lee, who’s a local [L.A.] musician. We started hanging out, and she became a friend. Finally, after about five hangs she started talking about Jaco, and I showed her a five-minute [demo] reel, and that’s when she agreed to give us an interview. She was just so helpful. There were five reels of never-before-seen footage [that] she gave us to transfer, but it was on old 1978 videotape-just a lost, dead format. So there were limited places that could actually transfer it to digital. But she was helpful in that, and with the licensing. The whole thing with all this is people stepping up for Jaco and wanting this movie to exist.

Volume Wars

I used to work at a club called the Comeback Inn [in Venice, Los Angeles] in the early ’80s. That’s where I saw John Patitucci play for the first time, and Billy Childs was playing in another band at the time with Dianne Reeves called Night Flight. I got to see that shit every weekend, man! I was working the door; I was washing dishes.

The interesting dichotomy was that next door was a surf shop, and behind the surf shop was a structure called the Pagoda, and that’s where Mike Muir of Suicidal Tendencies lived with his brother, [Dogtown skateboarder] Jim Muir. And there was a war going on between the owner of the jazz club and the Suicidal guys. When Suicidal would rehearse-this is before I was in the band-they would rehearse in the kitchen of the Pagoda, and the owner of the Comeback Inn would walk in the house and bang on the kitchen door and say, “Shut the fuck up!” And when the [the Comeback Inn would be] blasting new-age music, the Suicidal guys would point their PA speakers at the jazz club.

Heavy Metal Weather

I remember when Ozzy Osbourne was recording No More Tears, Infectious Grooves was recording next door at Devonshire Studios, which is where Weather Report recorded Heavy Weather. I was excited-“Jaco recorded here, man! I can feel his energy!” Ozzy was out of his mind at that point; he would always go missing. His assistants would come into the studio and say, “Do you know where Ozzy is?” “No, we haven’t seen him today. Why?” “Well, we can’t find him.”

But half the time he would be in our room. He’d come in and he’d say, “Play that song ‘Therapy’!” [which he ended up singing on]. We’d be in the middle of something, but it’s Ozzy so we’d shut it down for a minute and we’d play “Therapy,” whose bassline is my take, at age 25 or so, on Jaco Pastorius. And he’d do this dance and say, “This is the music I wanna make!”

The Other Disc

Jaco reminded me of the daredevils of my neighborhood, whether they were driving in their cars fast, or surfing or skating radical. Jaco was doing that for me on the bass, and he looked like them. And it’s true now, in making this film, [learning] about him and his bodysurfing, he was at the beach every minute that he could possibly be. If he wasn’t playing bass, he was bodysurfing or playing Frisbee on the sand. There was a connection on a lot of different levels. There was an energy there.

In the DVD extras, there’s a story from Joni where she says that she goes into a rehearsal studio and Joe Zawinul and Jaco are playing a heated round of Frisbee: They’re diving for the Frisbee, and they’re striking a pose, and the technique is there and everything; they were like professional Frisbee players. They would do that with ping pong as well. And they would probably do that on a party level too. I’ve heard stories. There’s a whole other side to Weather Report that had everything to do with partying. It was extreme and excessive, like any other rock band.

Swan Song

[Footage from Jaco’s 1985 instructional video, Modern Electric Bass] is an important way to kick off our film, but at the same time it’s a through line in our film. You start to realize that this video, at the time, was Jaco trying to make a statement. To me it seems like his last album. This was important to him; that’s why he wanted to do it with his favorite bass player, Jerry Jemmott. He wanted to share what he could share as a musician and a composer.

[Jaco] tried to sober up for that thing. I know the backstory to that, and it was a challenge for the producers of that video, and even for Jerry. Jerry was writing books-educational books for bass-and music, and he put all that aside so he could work on this video with Jaco, and take that journey with him. Because he knew it was important to him. To me that’s an important ingredient of the film. And we didn’t really latch onto that [film] until the fourth year of editing, when Jerry moved to Los Angeles [from Alabama]. When he jumped onboard he was so prolific. He’s like Yoda in a lot of ways; he’s so insightful.

Port of Entry

[In] 1996 I met Johnny Pastorius, Jaco’s eldest son, for the first time. And Johnny, we had a mutual friend, a guy I surfed with in California who was from Fort Lauderdale. And Johnny was at a bar [in Florida], buying a round of drinks with his credit card, and my friend was the bartender. He saw the name on the card and went, “I know that name! Is your dad Jaco?” They got to talking, and [my buddy] said, “My friend plays bass with Infectious Grooves, Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne.” I ended up talking to Johnny on the phone, and when I came through Fort Lauderdale with Ozzy we ended up hanging out. One of the first things I said to him was, “Someday you should make a film about your father, because his relevancy is important and it’s such a powerful story, and he has such a strong legion of fans out there.”

Punk Jazz

Jaco inspired me so much, because between his technique and what I was hearing sonically, it always made me feel like there were no rules. So I could do crazy music with Infectious Grooves. I could do a fretless intro on a Suicidal Tendencies song. When you go back and listen to Suicidal’s “You Can’t Bring Me Down,” you’re going to hear the fretless singing-you’re going to hear all that on the intro.

[Guitarist] Rocky George and I, when we played in Suicidal Tendencies, the minute we’d come offstage at L’Amour [in Brooklyn] or any of these crazy clubs, he would light up a Sherman cigarette, whip out his hollowbody and start playing through tunes in his fake book. Within the hour offstage he’s already playing jazz, [after] a show where people are climbing the ceiling and bouncing off the walls. Rocky was a total Ted Greene guy. In L.A., back at that time, everybody studied with Ted, even bass players. I wasn’t with Ted, I was over at the Dick Grove School. But again, that [jazz-rock crossover] was what that time was about.

Rocky and I connected in junior high-it would’ve been eighth grade. I think it was science class. He was coming from more of a classic rock place, and I was saying, “Hey, man, you’re a guitar player: You gotta listen to this guy called John McLaughlin, and you gotta check out Al Di Meola.” We were into [fusion] as much as we were into any rock band; we were listening to the instrumental stuff. So when Jaco came around, and I wasn’t even playing bass at the time, it was very exciting. There was a lot of mystique. Weather Report was a band that you had heard about, and the bass players were an important aspect of the music. … [W]hen Jaco joined the band, it was like all of a sudden they became a rock band, or something on that level. And the mystique behind the name alone-just the four letters-it was really exciting. There was no Internet, so it was fun at the time, in the same way that it was fun in 1978 when Eddie Van Halen came out with “Eruption.”

Yin & Yang

You need to try and keep a balance [in depicting your subject’s triumphs and failures], but you also need to share some of the moments that are intense. We don’t like to see our heroes weak or in a certain state, but it’s part of the reality. And it’s hard to digest for anybody. … It’s very complicated. With the [candid phone-call audio of Jaco], it was very difficult. … After doing some well-balanced screenings with older folks and members of the jazz community, people said [those] tapes are so impactful, and they were moved by [them] in a positive way. We thought, “This has to stay.” And that’s where you have to do the dance a little bit, and you have to stand up for yourself. My director [Paul Marchand] is a mild-mannered guy, but he will stand up for his creative rights. The way it’s presented in the film is powerful. You know he’s manic and he’s in a certain place, but it’s an important part in the film. It’s all about balance, but it ain’t easy.

Home page photo of Trujillo by Jeff Yeager.

Originally Published