Sunday, June 01, 2003

"What Jaco Said"
Thoughts on the Man and His Legacy

By Bassist/Producer
George Edward Sessum

When I first heard Jaco, I was 16 years old. I walked into the music store where I worked in Utica, New York, and didn’t see anyone minding the store. Everyone was over by the stereo section. A few of the older musicians were standing in a circle, passing this album back and forth. They were shaking their heads and listening.

I said, “Who is this?” And one of the guys said, “It’s Jaco. We played with him in Lou Rawls’ band. I can’t believe he got a record deal.” As I stood there listening with them; Donna Lee was playing. I was familiar with the song, but it was just plain out the way Jaco did that tune, not to mention making it the first cut! I didn’t understand what I was hearing because it was so odd to hear something so fast and so melodic in the lower register. My ears weren’t ready for what I was hearing, and I couldn’t digest it right away.

Then I heard Come On, Come Over, and I remember saying, “Hey this cat sounds like Frances Rocco Prestia. That’s interesting.” So I kept listening. When Continuum came on, with all those harmonics, I really took notice. I thought, “What is this? What am I hearing here?”

Trading in Our Frets

I was in several different groups at that time, playing bass, drums and guitar. That moment—the moment I first heard Jaco—focused me seriously on the bass. I had gotten my first bass when I was nine years old and played non-stop. I felt limited playing in the confines of the instrument so I would gig on drums and guitar. I learned from Alphonso Johnson and then Jaco that I could actually feel fulfilled on the bass. And I immediately traded my fretted bass for a fretless Guild electric. A straight trade: a brand new Gibson Grabber bass for a used Guild fretless (much to my mother’s dismay).

All the bass players in town started yanking the frets out of their basses. It was a mini-hysteria among bass players. Anyone who knew the music said, “This is what we have to do to get a sound like Jaco’s.”

Even with my first fretless, I couldn’t get that sound immediately. I worked to get the defined sound, to take the sound I had already developed and make it more pronounced, to bring it up above the band. Jaco was speaking above the bass drum. That’s what I was after. I was tired of being drowned out. I heard from Jaco what the bass could sound like in my hands.

Before Jaco, I studied Alphonso Johnson and Jack Bruce on the electric bass. I understood tonal variations for the bass, among other things, from these players, and I started to establish my own voice at that point. Still, that soaring, lyrical sound, like a Coltrane tenor solo, was what I was looking for, and it wasn’t coming from my hands – melodically or technically. As soon as I heard Jaco, I thought, Ah-ha—he achieved it. I could not believe what I was hearing. I was blown away.

Now, I thought, how do I get that beautiful sound?

He Gave Us Permission to be Heard

It seemed like when Jaco arrived, the rest of us on the edge got tossed aside for a time. I read about Stanley Clarke doing an interview, and the interviewer asked Stanley, “Have you heard Jaco?” And I could just see Stanley’s face—I knew. He says, “Yeah, I heard him.” That was the end of his comment. It was as if all other bassplayers were put out of business or, urged on to try harder and play their best.

We knew. We all knew. This cat had achieved what we were searching for: Definition, quickness, lyricism, and melodicism. It was every bassist’s dream. I incorporated Jaco’s influence by keeping my own sound, and then when it came time to solo, I would attempt to adopt Jaco’s method of soloing. In my soloing voice I wanted to get up above the other instruments in the band. That’s awfully hard to do on the bass. Jaco showed us how.

One band I was in consisted of a drummer with a large, deep kick drum, a trombonist who had an octave pedal on his trombone so he could reach way down and get all those sub-low synthesizer type notes, a guitarist who had a fatbox with a very thick sound, and a piano player who liked to play with all ten fingers and cover the whole range of the piano.

How do you get up from under that as a soloist—as a bass player? Your first instinct is to get louder. But that’s not necessarily the right idea. Following Jaco’s approach, I could be heard for the first time. That was the main thing. Jaco made it possible for us. He enlightened us and gave us permission. He said, you are a bassist and you can be heard. You don’t have to be lost in the sound or more specifically, lost in playing the accompaniment role.

The Mysterious Traveler and then the Heavy Weather albums changed everything for me. I was a Weather Report and an Alphonso Johnson fanatic before Jaco joined the group, but hearing Jaco in that context re-defined my direction musically, because that whole band incorporated Jaco’s sound. They gave Jaco a place in the group or, should I say, Jaco made his own way into the sound of that group.

Hearing Weather Report with Alphonso Johnson coming in as a dominant but supportive force (being a bit more groove heavy) and then hearing Jaco come in there forcing everyone else in the band to take responsibility for holding down the fort—that was just an astounding thing for those days, an incredible feat for a bassist.

And it was perfect. Who was to say that the electric bass couldn’t be an integral instrument, out in front, like a saxophone? That’s how Jaco redefined music for me personally. With attitude, you can get the sounds out of your head and into the band mix.

With Heavy Weather, we all started playing those songs, and it was quite a challenge to play the Jaco tunes. The fretless was my sound by then. I was busy in my own world of music working with some of the guys out of Lou Rawls’ band who had worked with Jaco, and believe or not, I was playing drums with them.

I was playing with Carmen Caramanica, a fine guitarist, who was the musical director/producer for Lou Rawls while Jaco was in the band. Also with Rick Montalbano, who was the piano player in Lou’s band. Carmen was the one who had to fire Jaco. He told me the story of how he and Lou were talking about it, and Jaco overheard them. Jaco says, “Who’s firing who? And Lou says, “I didn’t fire you, he did,” pointing to Carmen. Jaco was given two weeks notice and legend has it he played the way he wanted to for those two weeks.

You from Philly?

I’d hear a lot about Jaco’s antics from the late 70s to the early 80s, but had never met him. I moved out to California and finally back to Rochester, N.Y., where in 1982 I joined Cabo Frio, a fusion group who later signed with MCA/Zebra.

In 1983 I heard that Jaco was coming through Rochester. I said to the other guys in the band, “We have to open the show for Jaco--it would be too perfect.” But we were doing a recording session for our second album, and there was no way to make it happen.

By that time I had heard Word of Mouth and then the import album [that later became the Invitation album] produced by a mutual business acquaintance of Jaco and mine. Jaco was on the Invitation tour, and I was dead set on getting to Red Creek to hear some of the show. This was one of the few times we took ourselves away from the studio and from recording. You stopped what you were doing because Jaco was in town.

I got there and saw Mike Stern wandering around in beat up shoes with holes in them, but I didn’t see Jaco. When show time hit, I saw him alright, and I listened to his playing amazed the whole time. It was an incredible show.

Afterwards, I was looking for an opportunity to go up and talk to Jaco, and I was thinking, “How do I weasel my way back there?” But before I could make my way down stairs, I saw Jaco walking towards me.

He says, “You look familiar to me. Are you from Philly?” I said, “I’ve played Philly, but I’m not from Philly.” I think he heard me saying, “Yeah, I’m from Philly.”

Later I realized that Jaco had hung out at Jerry Jemmott’s house, and one of my former students was studying with Jerry at the time. He’d brought Jerry the first Cabo Frio album, the one with all our faces on the back cover. My student told me Jaco had heard the album, and that there was a bassline in one of the songs—Little Evie—that was definitely the way Jaco would have approached it. Jaco heard it and had seen the album, and I’m pretty sure that’s what triggered his memory.

Jaco Pastorius and George Sessum, 1983, Rochester, New York

So Jaco and I started talking and we hung out for a while. All the time I’m thinking, this is too terrific—I’m talking to Jaco. Then he said, “Hey, why don’t you come back to the hotel and hang out.” I asked if he had his bass with him. The band’s stuff was already on the bus, but I had two basses with me because I’d been recording that day. So we decided to go back and do some jamming.

“You Gotta Learn How to Play with Two Fingers”

We headed to the Holiday Inn with the rest of the band in tow. Cabo Frio’s guitarist Glenn Cummings had his guitar amp—a Boogie amp not made for anything else but guitar—and we had two basses going through that little Boogie amp. Glenn figured it was a good sacrifice. He said, “If we blow it we’ll just get another one.” Glenn had a camera too, which was great. And we had a tape recorder.

Talk about a night I’ll always remember.

Our playing was a test of fire. It was surreal. We were set up in the room. Mike Stern was there at first to see if I was for real. I was playing my Guild fretless and had also brought an old fretted Fender Precision Bass that Stern tried out.

Jaco Pastorius, Mike Stern, George Sessum, 1983, Rochester, New York

The first part of the jam, Jaco wasn’t playing. He was listening. Checking out my playing with Mike Stern and Kenwood Denard, who was playing an electric drum machine. At one point I was playing one of Jaco’s tunes—I think it was Continuum—and Jaco came in. Mike Stern says, “Hey Jaco, he’s got it—listen.”

And Jaco says, “Yeah, that’s fine, but you gotta learn how to play with two fingers.”

At that point, I said to myself, every ounce of energy I have, I’m going to play all over you. That’s what I decided to do. I was young—23—and I had the energy to do it. What he said made me angry, and I decided to play all over him. To show him what I had. I was pretty much saying, “Forget your two fingers--I’m gonna show you how I can play with all fingers.”

Once I started playing with fire, Jaco came in and picked up the other bass--we started playing a kind of dueling basses.

Jaco Pastorius and George Sessum, Dueling Basses, 1983, Rochester, New York

At first I played the Guild fretless and Jaco played the fretted bass, but by the time we turned the tape on we’d traded basses. Jaco really got deep into the Guild fretless. His whole look changed after playing that bass. When I listen back to the tape, I hear a whole different dimension to my bass with him playing it. Even now it amazes me.

My only regret today is that I challenged the master. It seems disrespectful now, but then felt I had something to prove. I needed Jaco’s approval, validation, and respect. On the tape you can hear him giving me instructions to play his subtle groove. I was basically playing like a hot head, and Jaco was playing with a maturity and wisdom I now realize was to guide me.

After we were done he said, “Hey, you’re a pretty good player…I can hear you’ve been around. You can probably read too, huh?”

The Recording that Never Was: Jaco on Congas with Cabo Frio

When we were hanging out—after we’d done our playing—Jaco gave me some advice that, as a kid in my early 20s, I needed to hear. He told me not to get messed up with drugs. He said, “Man, don’t take drugs. Give them all to me! No, seriously, stay away from those drugs, man.”

It wasn’t until years later that my band mate, Glen Cummings--who took all of the pictures, sacrificed his Boogie guitar amp, and manned the tape recorder--told me what Jaco said to him: that I was one of the best bass players he’d heard. I’d like to think he respected my playing. That alone would mean the world to me.

When we were wrapping up our jam session, I said, “Hey man, I’ve got a session tomorrow morning, if you want to play.”

Jaco said, “What do you want me to do—I’ll play congas on your song. How’s that?”

I was blown away. I had Jaco Pastorius wanting to play congas on my song! That flipped me out. I thought, this is too good to be true. And it was. His road manager talked him out of it because they had to do a sound check in Buffalo early the next day and he was worried Jaco wouldn’t make the gig on time. He could have—I would have driven the man to Buffalo myself. But it didn’t happen.

I’d seen Jaco a few times after the night we jammed. Then in 1988, I went to Syracuse University to see Jaco play. The rhythm section was supposed to be Jaco and Rasheed Ali, and they were playing with Jackie Byard, Marion Brown and Archie Shepp. When I got there, I ran into Jackie and Archie, and they said Jaco and Ali weren’t going to make the gig. So I wound up subbing for Jaco that night. I was sweating bullets because everyone came to see Jaco, and there I am playing in his spot? Very uncomfortable. I remember every note I played that night—still.

The Man and the Legacy

Jaco once said he was a sponge, and that’s the best kind of player. One who absorbs and revises the vision. If it hits you deep, it’s going to come out of you. Jaco, with his intensity and ability to immediately release what he heard and felt, made him special. He had that kind of intense talent.

When I heard Jaco had died, it was disbelief that hit me first. I saw Jaco again in the years after we jammed together. I knew things weren’t going well for him, but for him to be gone, just like that, it was too much. When I got the news he had passed, I went out to a jam session and I tried to play a song, but I couldn’t. So I didn’t play that night. I didn’t play for a while after that. I knew what a big loss this was. There are players everywhere who were innovative, but it was Jaco who made the biggest impact on the electric bass.

First, he was just that extra special in ability and vision, and secondly, he was plugged into the industry at the right time. He was playing with one of the greatest bands in the world in Weather Report, a band that understood what they had in Jaco.

The legacy of Jaco is in how he raised the bar for us all. He gave bass players permission to come out front—business-wise and musically—and he gave bands permission to let bassists get out from under the sound of the band.

I’ve mulled over the tape I made that night in Rochester for the last 20 years. I’d like to utilize some modern technology to build a song around the body of that jam session and release it. I wrote one song based around some of the parts we played that night called, “What Jaco Said.” I performed it with my old band, Saturn Probe, live in New York a few years back. I have that live version online here.

I’d also like to share the complete tape with those who care about Jaco and his music. It’s not much—30 minutes maybe—but it’s precious to me. I intend to give the complete tape to Jaco’s family so that they have it as a moment in his life, a moment I feel honored to have shared with him.

About George Sessum

George Sessum is an internationally acclaimed multi-bassist and producer who has toured extensively in the U.S. and abroad. Having recently returned from performances in Hong Kong and Europe, Sessum has performed with and produced both legends and legends-in-the-making. Noted for his decade-long contribution to jazz fusion group Cabo Frio, he was voted among the world’s most inspirational bassists by Bass Player magazine readers. In addition to touring and recording, Sessum runs Atlanta-based GES Productions (www.gesproductions.com) and writes a music-related weblog (musick.blogspot.com). He can be reached via email at gespro@yahoo.com

Bassist/Producer George Sessum

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