It’s curious that we don’t more directly associate electric jazz bass playing with Latin rhythms, given that the greatest practitioner on the instrument featured them so centrally in his sound. This newly unearthed document is a key sonic case in point. Here we have Jaco Pastorius with his Word of Mouth Big Band, live at NYC’s Avery Fisher Hall in the summer of 1982 for George Wein’s Kool Jazz Festival, regaling listeners with 130 minutes of music in which his ever-virtuosic bass work is neatly folded into a larger group dynamic. (The set is available as a three-LP box, two-CD package and digital download, including a 100-page book with contributions by Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, biographer Bill Milkowski and others.)
That this was an NPR recording means the sound is impeccable, no small detail in appreciating the full tonal display of Pastorius’ lines. On the opening “Invitation”—which functions as a musical epistle/beckoning to a damn good time—his notes are tightly clustered, like buzzy, motivic spirals that serve as fillips for the piece. Bob Mintzer’s tenor saxophone provides a lot of the solo-based forward motion, but it’s the Latin inflection—courtesy of Othello Molineaux’s steel drums—that makes this feel like work born of tropical climes and the jazz of New Orleans in all its wonderfully bonhomous hoodoo.
Pastorius never dominates, instead serving as facilitator for an ensemble of expert personnel like the bassist’s fellow Weather Report alumni Peter Erskine on drums and Don Alias on percussion, saxophonists Mintzer, Frank Wess and Howard Johnson and trumpeters Randy Brecker, Lew Soloff and Jon Faddis. Even when the leader solos and his bass becomes guitar-like, with a hint of trumpet and piano, he’s always in control, always economical. If his notes were drops of water they’d never overfill the bowl.
“Donna Lee” is a first-half highlight, the kettledrums contrasting with a Sun Ra-esque futuristic vibe in the refrains. “Soul Intro/The Chicken” features a fanfare straight from a 1980s late-night talk show as its intro, before the titular bird leaps into the fray to jitterbug. This is one brassy strut, a proper comfort-food piece, with a high feel-good quotient. Brecker plays his hindquarters off, ascending to Freddie Hubbard heights of hard-bop glory, but with the underpinning of a samba. Toots Thielemans turns up on harmonica on several numbers, but his contributions have mixed results. He’s more effective when he accompanies rather than spars, for this is Ellingtonian music—and a showcase for Pastorius the bandleader, the shaper of a series of jazz tone poems with symphonic qualities.
“Reza/Giants Steps” is akin to an electric bass concerto, something like those moments in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet when Tony Williams would simmer at his kit, keeping the music below a boil, his mates exploring the space around him. So it goes with Pastorius here, his fingers moving so fast you wonder if anyone could possibly transcribe this. It’s a bit like wondering how to take the temperature of a star. Better to just luxuriate in the light.