He knew he wanted this; knew he was right for it. So after the gig he slipped backstage and found his man: Joe Zawinul, keyboardist and co-leader of Weather Report, a band at the pinnacle of combining jazz and rock. “I am John Francis Pastorius the third,” he told Zawinul. “I am the greatest bass player in the world.” A surprised Zawinul asked for a demo tape. The kid was amazing, and in 1976 “Jaco” Pastorius duly joined the biggest fusion band on the planet.
As revolutionary on the electric bass as Jimi Hendrix had been on the electric guitar, Pastorius elevated Weather Report’s popularity still further. Five years later he quit, falling out with Zawinul over musical direction and his own substance abuse, and six years after that he was dead, having been beaten up by a nightclub bouncer.
Originally formed by Zawinul, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous, Weather Report suffered a revolving door of bassists, drummers and percussionists, with endless conflicts over approach as they forged ways of combining jazz and rock without the bombast that afflicted many contemporaneous attempts, partly by moving away from soloing towards more collective improvisation. When Vitous left, Shorter, a significant saxophonist and major jazz composer, let Zawinul dominate, albeit with some suspicions.
While Jaco’s arrival turned all Weather Report settings up to 11, by 1978 the artistic tensions between Shorter, Zawinul and Pastorius were, in retrospect, ideally balanced. That’s when, together with drummer Peter Erskine, they undertook a world tour that brought them to Australia for the only time.
What I heard in Canberra was not what I was expecting. This was supposed to be my chance to sup at the table of the jazz prophets. Shorter had been at the summit for some 15 years, including playing with Miles Davis through the 1960s. Zawinul had joined him there, a key influence on the two albums where Miles, the high priest of jazz, began to embrace the rhythms, textures and primal energy of rock.
But Weather Report was a movable feast, and on that cold Canberra night in 1978 I was flattened by the loudest band I’d heard outside of Led Zeppelin, and irritated by the barefooted bassist whose elongated solo feature saw him lay his bass on the stage, induce feedback, and then leap across the instrument to vary the feedback’s pitch. Where I’d looked for the holy word of jazz, instead I was pummelled by yet more rock antics.
Only later did I suspect my expectations may have blighted my appreciation of something astounding. I came to love Weather Report more and more, and then this year Tokyo 1978 was released: a live double-album from the same tour, and a chance to hear more objectively what had disappointed me all those years ago. Zawinul would later describe this lineup as “one of the greatest bands of all time”, and on the basis of most of this album, his assessment was about as accurate as Jaco’s hyperbole about his own playing.
The album reinforces what I’d already come to appreciate: Zawinul was always exceptional at crafting synth sounds and lines of startling beauty, humanity and imagination, and the band was equally outstanding at developing ominous, brooding music that was suddenly ripped apart by slashing ensemble passages.
Then there’s Jaco’s genius, and the brilliance of the resultant interplay. Listen to the bruising bass lines intersecting with Shorter’s tenor on Gibraltar. Where an equality of voices had been established in the Vitous band through restraint, a similar equality was at work here via white-hot energy. Certainly Jaco’s astounding musicality and innovation far outweighed the garish showmanship I’d found so grating. They were wasted on me.
There’s a video of a complete concert from the same tour available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/ehXUyW4-hA8, and also of the bands that Jaco led in 1982 (https://youtu.be/3wZ0MT-dfno and https://youtu.be/-d10WoCfZV8). That was before he veered right off the rails, to a train-wreck outside a nightclub, and death at 35.
Tokyo 1978 is available on disc through Equinox/Planet Music; called Japan Live ’78 – Remastered, it streams on Spotify and Apple Music.