Felix Pastorius Suits up with the Yellowjackets

August 26, 2013
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HIS NAME PRECEDES HIM, AS DOES HIS LANKY 6'6" frame, featuring Avatar-like fingers that enable him to cleanly sound a C on the B, A, and C strings of his Fodera 6 in one swooping downstroke. But what ultimately makes a first impression of Felix Pastorius onstage with the Yellowjackets at New York’s famed Birdland club is the intense focus with which he gets way inside music. From his centered stool, he simultaneously processes Bob Mintzer’s winding tenor, Russell Ferrante’s wave of piano harmony, and Will Kennedy’s kinetic drums, before delighting the three vets with a nimble, neck-spanning solo. On his Jackets disc debut, A Rise in the Road, Felix is equally formidable, embracing the Jimmy Haslip-established model of moving from deep grooves to featured melody or solo on “Civil War,” “Madrugada,” “Longing,” and “(You’ll Know) When It’s Time” (the latter two on his dad’s famed fretless Fender Jazz “Bass of Doom”). Those more familiar with Felix from his head-turning role in Jeff Coffin’s Mu’Tet, and at various underground Manhattan and Brooklyn clubs, know that he’s anything but a reissue of bass guitar royalty. Instead, the 31-year-old has formulated his own navigational approach to fingerboard harmony, rhythm, and ensemble function. Coupled with his natural musical gift, he stands poised to take the instrument down some exciting new paths.

Felix Pastorius was born June 9, 1982, into a Deerfield Beach, Florida home full of instruments. While his father Jaco was in and out of town gigging, his mother, Ingrid, encouraged her twin sons to embrace music. Felix started on violin and moved to piano lessons with his brother, Julius, at age seven. Intrigued by music theory, Felix figured out the steps and chords in a major scale, while a friend showed him a pentatonic scale. Bass happened at age ten, through a Dan Armstrong plexiglass model and the Fender Jaco Pastorius Signature Jazz Bass he and Julius received later to play “Continuum” at a Jaco tribute in New York City. Getting more serious via a fretted J-Bass, he gathered the influences of Flea, Les Claypool, Victor Wooten (whom he met at a Larry Graham concert, when he was 14), and BASS PLAYER’s Bass Day ’97 video with, among others, Oteil Burbridge and John Patitucci. Just before his 16th birthday, Felix began working Florida clubs in a trio led by Weather Report percussionist Robert Thomas Jr., with vibist Tom Toyama. He laughs, “My mom would drive me to the gigs and sneak me in. Bobby wanted young musicians he could mold. He’d step up to the mic and introduce the tune by name, but there was no song! We’d make it up on the spot! Tom developed hand signals so I could follow the changes and turnarounds. When we finally got to rehearse, Bobby had us play in the dark to make us rely on our ears.”

The Yellowjackets (from left): Will Kennedy, Russell Ferrante, Bob Mintzer, and Felix Pastorius.
Felix—who formed Way Of The Groove with Julius on drums, and played with other friends in Tampa—attended Wooten’s first bass camp in 2001 and made an impression. Soon after, when Flecktones and Dave Matthews Band saxophonist Jeff Coffin needed a bassist for his Mu’tet, Victor recommended Felix, who remembers, “The music was over my head, but I didn’t want to let down Victor, so I made the leap.” Filtered between regular Coffin runs were moves to Oakland, Seattle, and New York, and time with the Florida jam band the Heavy Pets. Finally, in 2009, Felix committed to moving to New York full time, buoyed by a regular gig at Zinc Bar courtesy of family friend Neil Weiss. He also fit in road work with Cindy Blackman. 2011 was a busy year for Felix, capped by tragedy when Ingrid Pastorius passed away suddenly in November, at age 61. While in Florida after the funeral, he got a call from the Yellowjackets management to come to L.A. to audition for the band, based on Coffin’s recommendation. Two weeks later, Mintzer, who sat in with the Felix-anchored Mu’tet a year earlier, called to welcome him to the band.

What was your transition into the Yellowjackets like?

Both exciting and terrifying! My first gig was a little more than a month after the audition, on a borrowed 5-string [with a high C]. Bob and Russ had sent me the tracks and charts for about nine songs, but the recordings weren’t the current versions. We rehearsed for an hour and a half and did the gig. The first time I played “Geraldine” I couldn’t figure out what was going on; it was a different version than anything I’d heard and I was sweating bullets—somehow we all ended at the same time! My next gig was outdoors in front of 100,000 people in Italy, and Bobby Franceschini was subbing for Bob, so that was another interpretation of the music. I’m a huge fan of the band; Jimmy Haslip was the first bassist I saw besides my dad, when I was five and the Jackets came to the Musicians Exchange in Florida. I’ve always dug Jimmy’s highly original lef-thanded, upside-down approach, and his adaptation of the 6-string into jazz was key for the electric bass.

How did you arrive at your parts on the CD?

That was another nerve-racking situation, especially with my minimal recording chops, and knowing a CD is a permanent document. We had just two four-hour rehearsals a week before the recording— and some of Bob’s music is crazy! Also, management had decided 6-string is the sound of the Jackets, so I had just gotten my Fodera 6, which I’m still finding my way on. A lot of the bass parts were written and we worked out some things in rehearsal. We recorded live and for the improvised parts behind the soloists; I just listened and tried to not go too far outside the lines. But it was a terrific experience, with some great moments. I’m still in the process of learning the Jackets’ vocabulary; there’s a feel and sensitivity every band has, and you have to understand how it works. I respect Bob, Russell, and Will so much, I’m constantly asking if there’s anything I should be doing differently. I want to make their transition smooth. Going forward, I’m interested in getting better at writing and developing material with the guys that has my voice in there.

You play your dad’s “Bass of Doom” on “(You’ll Know) When It’s Time” and “Longing.”

On the second day of rehearsal, Russell said, “I’d love to have you play the melody on ‘You’ll Know,’” and my first thought was, This should be fretless because it’s a beautiful ballad—even though I don’t play fretless. So I called my family and I called Robert [Trujillo], who had the bass on tour with Metallica, and they were all for it. Robert brought the bass over the night before the recording, and I tweaked the neck and put new roundwounds on it. I used the back pickup with a little neck pickup added, too. My dad changed his sound over the years, which is just one of the reasons I wish he was around, so I could ask him about that.

Describe the influence your dad had on you.

I guess the initial influence was that my dad was so loved by so many. Growing up surrounded by his family and friends, his music was always on, and everyone I knew was head over heels in love with him. The few memories I have of being with him are all good. He was a jokester, always trying to play pranks on people. I saw some of it, but I got most of who my dad was through my family. Basswise, I know all of his songs by heart, and for the ones I’ve studied deeply, the challenge was trying to figure out the fingerings because some of what he played is almost physically impossible. I also think his composing is just as important. I believe his writing is going to last longer, in some ways, than his playing—his playing affects bass players, but his writing affects everybody.

Was there some concern when you settled on the same instrument as your dad?

Probably so. I never really had that conversation with any family members, although I’m sure some of them would now say, What were you thinking? But for me it has never really been an issue, except with certain people who can’t look past it. Like, I had a 7-string at one point, and after a gig a guy came up to me and said, “Was that your dad’s bass?” I felt like, Come on, does everything I do have to involve my dad? I understand it, though; he got everyone hooked on the instrument. But for me I just enjoyed playing bass. There wasn’t any other option. It was also a little strange meeting my bass idols. As the son of one of their idols, they were looking at me almost the same way I was looking at them!

Let’s talk about your right- and left-hand technique.

I usually observe what others are doing and then adapt it in my own way. My dad’s method of playing an F major scale [index F, middle G, pinkie A on the E string; index Bb, middle C, pinkie D on the A string; index E, middle F on the D string] made the most sense to me, the way it moves your hand across the neck. It’s a big stretch in the first few positions, but another way to think of it is, if you play a finger-per-fret chromatically starting on F# on the E string [F#, G, G#, A], all you have to do is drop your index finger to F natural and you have the shape. In my right hand, most of the fast stuff I play is with 1st and 2nd fingers. I adapted a finger-style approach using my thumb, index, and middle fingers, plus my palm for muting, based on seeing players like Victor [Wooten], Gary Willis, Dominique Di Piazza, and Matt Garrison do it. My version is to always play thumb, index, middle in order, but to gain dexterity, I practice it in patterns of 4, 5, or 7, so the thumb isn’t always landing on a downbeat. The other aspect of my technique I notice is often I’m trying to make a fretted bass sound fretless with hammerons and legato phrasing—probably because I grew up with that sound.

Based on your most recorded role, as a member of Jeff Coffin’s Mu’tet, you have a penchant for fluid improvised grooves and solos.

To me, grooving, walking, soloing, and playing chordally are essentially the same, and there are endless options and variables in each of those situations. It’s really about creating in the moment and trying to figure out the most efficient and musical way to support or lead. Honestly, performing isn’t necessarily the highpoint for me. It can paint you into a corner as being a certain kind of musician. The biggest kick I get out of music is learning it. For me, there’s nothing better than being home practicing and working out concepts.

You play regularly with a few bands in your New York City home base.

Those are fun vehicles to work on ideas; we’ve had the Hipster Assassins since 2010, built around a regular gig at Zinc Bar, with my best bass buddy Mike Bendy, his brother John on guitar, Chris Ward on sax, and Kenny Gronowski on drums. We bring all of our different backgrounds to the music, which has been called “punk jazz.” Lately I’ve been focusing on my band with Chris, drummer Devin Collins, and pianist William Tatge, called Social Experiment, which started from a regular gig at Cubana Social restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s my first real attempt at writing original music, drawn from fragments of melodies and progressions I’ve come up with over the years.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

If I had to commit, the most comfortable situation I can envision is fully developing this concept I have of making the bass a much broader instrument technically and musically. Bass is not like a piano, where the entire keyboard is right in front of you. We have four or five or six chromatic-scale strings tuned in 4ths, and we’re restricted by which string we’re on, which fret, and which finger we’re using. By breaking open how music can work on the fingerboard, bass can expand beyond the traditional support role to being just another instrument that plays the same 12 notes. We should have the freedom on bass to be able to play any role, in any style of music, in any way. I want to put together a book on this; I’m constantly writing out patterns and theories.

Bob Mintzer On Felix Pastorius

“We auditioned several bassists. Felix seemed to have the best fit, both musically and personally. He has the team spirit and played the supportive role of bassist while also being a dynamic soloist. Felix is his own person separate of Jaco. Most electric bassists are influenced by Jaco in some way, but Felix is developing his own voice by way of constructing his own systematic approach to dealing with harmony, melody, and rhythm. Felix brings a lightness and open quality to the music. In a band like this, a personnel change will send the music in another direction, and we’re all excited about Felix’s input.”

INFO

LISTEN

Yellowjackets, A Rise in the Road [Mack Avenue, 2013]; Jeff Coffin Mu’tet, Into the Air [Ear Up, 2012], Live! [Ear Up, 2011], Mutopia [Compass, 2008]; Gospel for J.F.P. III: Tribute to Jaco Pastorius [MoonJune, 2005]

EQUIP

Basses Custom Fodera Emperor II-style 6-string with 27 frets in a 33" scale, three-piece maple neck, rosewood fingerboard, alder and ash body with a box elder burl top, single-coil J/J pickups, Fodera/ Pope 3-band preamp; custom parts Jazz Bass, based on ’60s specs
Strings D’Addario EPS170-6 ProSteels (.030, .045, .065, .080, .100, .130); Dunlop Nickel Wounds (.025, .040, .060, .080, .100, .120) for home practice
Rig Aguilar Tone Hammer head with two GS 112 cabinets
Effects MXR Bass Compressor, MXR Bass Octave Deluxe, Electro-Harmonix Cathedral Stereo Reverb, Electro- Harmonix Ring Thing Ring Modulator, unknown volume pedal, hair-tie mutes around the nut (à la Victor Wooten)
Studio On A Rise in the Road: Miked Aguilar rig along with direct signal via tube DI

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