Whilst James Jamerson was a hugely influential bass player who remained in the shadows, Jaco was front and centre and visible to all. An astronomical talent and a pioneer of the instrument, he is best known for his work with Weather Report, as well as his solo work and his playing with Joni Mitchell. Jaco ripped the frets off his Fender thus creating his unique signature voice on the fretless. He played harmonics, used fuzz and a looping pedal, quoted Hendrix in his solos and blazed through life as the force of nature he was until his tragic and untimely death in 1987.
Despite being known as one of the greatest jazz players of all time, Jaco drew his influences from classical as well as rock and RnB. Some of his signature 16th note lines are pure funk. His sound, tone, and feel is unmistakable and he transcended all those different influences. His playing veers perfectly between the bass as a foundation of the band to full-on frontline melodic voice.
Jaco’s technique was mind blowing, enabling him to fly around the neck at breakneck speed. However, he could groove with the best of them. He used harmonics – both natural and artificial, slides, vibrato, dynamics, ferocious right hand plucking, lots of pentatonic RnB-influenced lines and beautiful vocal-inspired melodies.
The 1962 Fender Jazz is a famous bass due to Jaco. He ripped the frets out himself and filled them in himself to create a fretless bass. Something I later copied with varying degrees of success as a Jaco-obsessed 13 year old! The resulting sound – from Jaco, not me – remains iconic.
With Weather Report: Teen Town. This is a famous bass tune; tricky to play but well worth learning.
Solo work: Portrait Of Tracy. This track became the manual for harmonics on the bass guitar.
As a sideman: Hejira, Joni Mitchell. A fantastic example of the bass in duet with vocals. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
This autobiography is a brilliant and tragic account of one the titans of our instrument. It’s odd how often true genius is tainted with tragedy and this book documents the highs and the lows of one of the very greatest. You can check out some other bass books here.
Robert Trujillo of Metallica self-financed this documentary and it is well worth a watch. To complement this film you could check out a few more great bass heavy documentaries here.
We don’t have to like every style of music or every type of player but whether you’re into jazz or not, there’s so much to discover in Jaco’s playing. His influence continues to permeate into so many great players today. We owe him so much.