With precious few recordings prior to his staggering, self-titled 1976 debut, Jaco Pastorius’ Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions is a set of demos that, for once, really do matter and matter a lot.
The electric bassist forever changed his instrument and widened the possibilities of music broadly known as jazz when that album first appeared and remains just as relevant and amazing today. Two years earlier, avant-garde piano great Paul Bley organized recording sessions with Pastorius, drummer Bruce Ditmas and a nineteen year old Pat Metheny, released as Jaco that first suggested the bassist’s vast potential, but it was also around when he recorded some demo sessions that he led, and played several of his own compositions (four of which later appeared on Jaco Pastorius).
Modern American Music, released on Record Store Day 2014 (Omnivore Recordings), present 11 tracks from those 1974 sessions recorded after-hours with friends at Miami’s Criteria Studios, with six pulled from an acetate. Sure, these recordings have a fuzzy raw quality to them and some of the songs get a little jammy. But the immense virtuosity of Pastorius was more than enough to overcome these shortcomings.
That makes this an album a disappointment only to those wanting to hear what Jaco sounded like as a developing musician, because he was already a fully formed talent at the time of these recordings. When he takes on the bebop classic “Donna Lee” on unaccompanied bass guitar, he is easily handling all of Charlie Parker’s fluid, compacted lines and still finds space to drop in a few chimes…the same way he wowed the world to start his formal debut. “Pans #1” is an early example of his nervous, bubbly upper register oscillating figure, and backed by steel drums and Alex Darqui’s electric piano. Here, Pastorius has already figured out how to blend world music into jazz and rock.
It become apparent from this demos that Jaco was also already prepared to join Weather Report, though neither he nor Weather Report knew it at the time. His unshakeable sense of swing shows up on the alternate version of “Balloon Song (12-Tone)”, a song that was apparently left unreleased until now and the sessions with the steel drums — and alternately, Don Alias’ percussion — verified his embrace of Afro, Cuban and Caribbean music forms. These are all attributes that were going to inevitably attract the attention of Weather Report leader Joe Zawinul.
We’re also treated to an early version of “Havona,” the song that later closed out Heavy Weather. Production issues aside, the early version comes across better, because the lack of Wayne Shorter’s soprano sax better gave Pastorius more room to maneuver and adorn the song with all sorts of little harmonic delights. That song eases right into “Continuum,” where he take the upfront role away from the electric piano. The melody is only implied but there’s no mistaking it.
A standalone version of “Continuum” is present, too, gentle and empyrean like the recording that made it on the debut album. “Forgotten Love” is yet another Jaco Pastorius song presented in its infancy on Modern American Music. With just Pastorius playing with fragility and simple beauty on electric piano alone, what’s left is a musician who can devise and play pretty esoteric melodies. It also surpasses its better-known version.
In conjunction with Pastorius’ estate, these tapes were curated and produced by Metallica’s bass player Robert Trujillo, who shrewdly left these demos unedited to give us an unfiltered window into Pastorius’ capabilities at the time, and Pastorius had nothing to hide, anyway. Trujillo’s participation in this project is a testament to Jaco’s universal appeal that easily cut across all styles of music.
It isn’t really accurate to say that “the legend begins” with Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions, because that legendary brilliance was already firmly in place by the time of these sessions and wasn’t widely known about for another couple of years. Nonetheless, this is a vital entry to Jaco Pastorius’ catalog and the starting point in tracing a mind-blowing and ultimately tragic career.
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