A kid grows up, knowing that his uncle – who had died young – had been a big shot on an instrument called the bass. A decade later the kid himself is a master of the same instrument, and is getting rapidly tired of people asking him if he got the idea to pick it up from that same uncle…
This is exactly what happened to David Pastorius, nephew of the late, great, still-much-missed Jaco. The leader of a successful Florida-based band called Local 518, David tells us: “I only met Jaco twice, so I didn’t know him that well. He died when I was 10. I knew I had an uncle that was a famous musician who played bass, but I was one of those people who thought that a bass was just a guitar with four strings. I didn’t really pay much attention to the music.”
He goes on: “When I was 15, I had a buddy in school who played bass, and I went over to his house one day and he started playing some Red Hot Chili Peppers – their version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’. He started playing a slap line over that and I said, ‘Man, that sounds cool – what instrument is that?’ He was like ‘It’s a bass, you idiot – your uncle played one…’ I said, ‘Oh that’s what he played?’ and saved up some money and bought a Peavey Fury bass – my first one.”
Born in Minnesota but raised in Jaco’s home state of Florida, David grew up listening to punk and metal, honing his bass chops by listening to his heroes Flea and Robert Trujillo (then of Suicidal Tendencies, now of Metallica) and watching instructional videos by Louis Johnson and Stuart Hamm. He played in various rock bands, including Queen Mary, led by his cousin Mary Pastorius. Before many years had passed David had developed a rock-solid bass style, reinforced with a dexterous tapping and slap technique – a style which didn’t go unnoticed. In 2003 Peter Graves, leader of the Jaco Pastorius Big Band, asked David to play on Word Of Mouth Revisited, the all-star bass project featuring talents as stellar as Victor Bailey, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten. Note that this was not because David played like his famous uncle.
As David explains: “Over the years I’ve listened to Jaco’s stuff, of course, and he was amazing. But I don’t want to be a Jaco clone. People say, ‘Oh, those are big shoes to fill!’ and that’s why I’m not worried about filling his shoes: I want to do his own thing.” Asked if it’s a help or a hindrance to have such a well-known surname, he chuckles: “It works two ways. The name will get people to listen to you, but once you’ve got people listening, if you can’t play, it doesn’t matter who you are. Sometimes, it also leads to an immediate attitude of ‘Oh, I get it – you play bass too, huh?’ But I really don’t worry about it. I’m pretty lucky to be like that.”
Nowadays David is endorsed by Fender basses and Hartke amps, playing with Local 518 and at various clinics. Like his fellow Floridian Jeff Berlin, he has the eye-opening habit of touring with just a single instrument: no backup for him. “I have one bass!” he says. “One, in my whole house. I really should take a backup on the road, I definitely should. The worst thing that’s ever happened to me was when I played at NAMM in California. The night before I did a gig, and I left all my gear at the gig – not knowing that the bar didn’t open until six in the evening the following day. So I had to hunt down a bass when I got to NAMM. I ended up borrowing one from the Carvin booth for the night.”
David prefers to play a four-string bass these days, saying: “I used to play five, but I like the tone of a four and I like what I do better out of a four. I’m not opposed to playing a five or a six: if anything, the extra strings make it easier. I was forced to learn the neck better when I went back to a four. I could stay in one spot all night with a five.”
Don’t expect him to follow his uncle’s footsteps and remove the frets, though. As he explains, “I do love the tone of a fretless, but I prefer the fretted tone. Also, I’d have to sit at home and practice for months to play fretless, because I don’t want to be one of those guys who play out of tune. You know what I mean? You’ve heard tons of guys playing out of tune – and it makes you cringe and think, ‘Why are you playing a fretless?’”
Although he’s come a long way since he was a kid listening to Flea and Trujillo, David retains his respect for those two players to this day, saying: “I really dug the stuff that Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves were doing. I’ve spoken to Rob on the phone a couple of times: he knows my cousin John Pastorius, Jaco’s son. A while ago John hooked it up so I could meet him at a Metallica show in Jacksonville, but it didn’t work out. We were driving home after the show and I got a phone call from Rob, apologizing. So we met at a jam night that I was doing a couple of days later. He basically sat in a corner with a hoodie over his head so no-one would recognize him.”
“I’m also a huge fan of Mark King – that guy’s a monster,” he goes on. “He’s so melodic with his slapping. Les Claypool also has his own sound going on, I was a fan of the early Primus stuff. I’m also into some of the older guys – Willie Weeks, James Jamerson – but when I got started I was into punk and metal music. I still listen to it to this day. Playing that stuff gives you great attack and stamina.”
Ask David if he would have started playing the bass even if there had been no history of the instrument in his family, he says; “I would have, 100%. When I saw the bass being played I thought, ‘That’s cool – I like that!’” The best of all possible reasons to pick the instrument up, you’ll agree.