Week 7: When Joni Met Jaco
Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.
During my senior year of high school my budding interest in jazz music had come full circle. I played drums alongside two electric violinists in, dare I say, an eclectic seven-piece jazz combo. I was enrolled in a full-year jazz studies course (something of a rarity for a high school), and I regularly raided the public library’s respectable jazz CD collection. With the limit set at ten albums per visit, I could walk away with more than enough to soak up in a week, and I ultimately pieced together a fairly comprehensive collection of “burned” albums.
It was in my senior year that I first gave hip-hop a chance. It was the year I seriously dove into Bob Dylan’s catalogue and it was the year I discovered Jaco Pastorius. For most, Jaco is hardly a household name, but rather his is a tragic tale in the music world–a master of his craft, a musicians musician, cut short in his prime by a tragedy that still puzzles his admirers.
Arguably one of the greatest electric bass players to have ever picked up the instrument, period, Jaco got his start in the light jazz fusion ensemble, Weather Report, but quickly established himself as a leading force, releasing two solo studio albums and collaborating with a number of artists in and outside of the jazz world. That this legend would die from injuries contracted in a mysterious bar brawl in Southern Florida, makes the story all the more tragic.
I first became privy to Jaco’s self-titled debut album one day when I entered the jazz practice room of my high school’s music department to find a number of my peers hovered around a stereo blasting Jaco’s rendition/mash-up of Herbie Hancock’s “Kuru/Speak Like a Child” through the room’s significant sound system. Awe was understood.
That afternoon I picked up the CD version of Jaco Pastorius at the bookstore and spent the evening listening as Jaco turned the fretless electric bass guitar into a lead instrument.
His ability of combining traditional bass lines with melodic, tender harmonic chords to create entire, unaccompanied compositions on the bass changed the game for bass players everywhere. Not to go overkill on the praise, but it’s fair to say that without Jaco’s contribution to music, Flea from The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s, The Minutemen’s Mike Watt, Vic Wooten, and other prolific masters of the instrument may have never found their way. He’s that important.
In 1976, as Pastorius unleashed his debut masterpiece, he also started what would end up being a four-record collaboration with folk singer Joni Mitchell, starting with her underrated album, Hejira.
I had grown up with Mitchell’s Blue and Court and Spark, easily the siren’s two greatest achievements, but was unfamiliar with her forays into the jazz world until I stumbled upon copies of Hejira and 1979’s Mingus at the aforementioned library’s audio/visual department.
I didn’t link the two artists until I actually played the album and instantly heard what had to be Jaco’s tender bass harmonics coupled with Mitchell’s equally tender vocals. The four tracks that Jaco played on–”Coyote,” “Hejira,” “Black Crow” and “Refuge of the Roads”–are in my opinion four of the greatest musical parings out there.
Two masters of their individual crafts producing music of such beauty; it was enough to leave me wide-eyed. While Joni can make her pipes weep with melancholy, Jaco figured out how to do the same on the fretless bass.
It makes sense that Mitchell sought out Jaco (or vice versa). Both have extremely distinct sounds, and Mitchell has always walked the fine line between folk and jazz with her music, eventually devoting whole records to the genre she adores (she name checks “strains of Benny Goodman” on Hejira’s title-track and would later pay her respects to Charles Mingus on Mingus).
While slightly flawed as a whole album, Hejira is definitely one of the Mitchell’s most fascinating efforts. Written almost entirely on the road as Mitchell drove from Maine to Southern California, the album, which gets its name from the Arabic word for ‘journey,’ invokes images of traveling alone by car through America, a spiritual journey documented by so many artists over the years.
She paints pictures of desert landscapes, old highway motels, and on one of the album’s great standout tracks, “Amelia,” airplane vapor trails which she tags as “a hexagram of the heavens.” She’s always had a way with words.
While music journalist Ron Rosenbaum gives a strong argument for “Amelia” being Mitchell’s strongest and most intriguing song to date at Slate.com, I’ve always been moved by “Hejira,” that epic title-track that makes the best use of the Jaco/Joni marriage of sound.
On “Hejira,” Mitchell sings of “comfort in melancholy” while Jaco meanders in and out of her verses fingering his six string with the same warmth that Mitchell calls upon with her vocals and lyrics.
The beauty of jazz music has always been its language of improvisation. Most jazz standards are based around a series of simple notes. The players muse on the bridge and then each go off into their worlds playing off each other the way people share thoughts in a conversation. It’s a musical art-form that finds its finest moments in the surprises that can arise. Put a group of masters in a room and listen to the magic unfold.
On “Hejira” Mitchell sings, “I see something of myself in everyone / Just at this moment in the world.” When listening to “Hejira,” and the other three Jaco/Joni tracks on the album, it’s hard not to deny that the two artists found an instant connection in the studio. The fruit of this pairing is, in my mind, the heart of what makes Hejira such an incredible album to return to again and again. Lyrically, I still favor Blue and Court and Spark for giving the world lines like,
Oh I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
–“Case of You”
I used to count lovers like railroad cars
I counted them on my side
Lately I don’t count on nothing
I just let things slide
–“Just Like This Train”
I stumbled upon Hejira shortly after diving into Jaco, (not to mention Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson) and found the connection between both geniuses to be serendipitous (this was before I relied on the Internet for musical fact checking to aid my listening habits). Liner notes would confirm that what I was hearing was, in fact, Jaco, but I had no doubt in my mind.
Later on that year I stumbled upon a forgotten Herbie Hancock homage record to George and Ira Gershwin, Gershwin’s World (1998), which features, among a number of beautiful collaborations, a Mitchell guest vocal spot on “The Man I Love.” I played it for my father who I knew was a longtime Joni fan, and he knew the minute her lush pipes poured into the microphone who it was.
Jaco and Joni have musical voices that are completely their own. While you can hear Joni’s influences on countless modern day singer songwriters, not to mention her contemporaries, Jaco’s presence still carries strong in and out of the jazz world. Both are unmistakable to ear.
Later that year I discovered Martin Scorsese’s concert film, The Last Waltz, a moving swan song performance from Bob Dylan’s great backing band,The Band and was pleasantly surprised to find Joni performing Hejira’s opener “Coyote.” It was eerie how Hejira linked together a number of my musical explorations of the time. While now I credit resources like Allmusic.com or Wikipedia as terribly informative fact-checking sites for exploring musical range, their absence that year provided me with countless surprises of collaborations that changed my perception of the music world. Suddenly jazz wasn’t just some side genre that only the hip or the old dug, but rather a music that was without genre boundaries.
Miles Davis’ foray into funk and rock, Steely Dan’s fusion of jazz instrumentation, and Joni’s pining to walk the line between folk/rock/pop/jazz were all part of a musical awakening that year. It cemented the notion that music is a universal language and while we can typecast and catalogue it into genres and sub-genres, its ultimately a form of expression that is completely unpredictable.