| March, 2008 | bassplayer.com
It’s official. We can all set our sights on locating James Jamerson’s long-lost ’62 P-Bass “Funk Machine,” because the most famous missing bass guitar of all has been found. Jaco Pastorius’s fretless 1962 Fender Jazz “Bass of Doom” (as he dubbed it) has turned up in New York City, over 20 years after it was last seen there. As Jaco’s main fretless, it can be heard on his landmark self-titled solo debut, his successive solo albums, and much of the Early Years package, as well as his recordings with Weather Report, Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, and others.
While details of the acquisition must remain confidential while legal questions are resolved, the party in possession of the instrument was willing to bring it by Will Lee’s downtown apartment, where Will, Victor Wooten, Victor Bailey, and Bass Player (me!) got to play it.
There are all sorts of tales about Jaco’s Bass of Doom, many related cryptically by Jaco himself. A 1984 Guitar Player cover story by Bill Milkowski states that the instrument was already fretless when Jaco bought it in Florida for $90 in the early ’70s. However, in 1978, Jaco told luthier Kevin Kaufman that he removed the frets himself using a butter knife, filling the fret slots and missing fingerboard chunks with Plastic Wood and applying several coats of Petite’s Poly-Poxy. Kaufman’s first job was to replace the peeling epoxy, which he did by pouring on a single coat and shaping it with a rasp.
Jaco smashed the Bass of Doom in the mid ’80s, apparently in an argument. Kaufman and fellow repairman Jim Hamilton painstakingly glued together 15 large chunks and several small pieces, inlaying wood where fragments were missing, and laminating a figured-maple veneer on the front and back of the body. They held together the splintered headstock with an ebony/maple veneer, refinished the instrument in a two-tone sunburst, and returned it to Jaco. How the instrument disappeared is the subject of some dispute. All that’s known for sure is that it was last seen with Jaco in Central Park sometime during 1986.
The Bass of Doom
Allow me to offer my personal reflections upfront. When I first laid eyes on the instrument, my initial reaction was that it didn’t look like the Bass of Doom, what with the figured-maple top and back. (A photo of Jaco holding the restored bass can be seen on page 240 of Bill Milkowski’s updated Backbeat Books bio Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius.) As for picking up and plucking a piece of history, let me describe it this way: Who among us hasn’t wondered if we would sound better playing the instrument of one of our bass heroes?
Well, the answer in this case is, Yes! The Bass of Doom is the best-sounding and feeling fretless I’ve ever fingered. It’s very light and very resonant, with the extra-narrow neck of early Jazz Basses. Stroked softly closer to the neck, the warm Jaco mwah sound filled the air; plucking harder, back by the bridge, resulted in his trademark biting growl; and harmonics seemed to just explode off the wood. But what struck me most about the tone was how round it was with the bridge pickup favored, as Jaco preferred it—so much so that I found myself checking to be sure I had dialed back the neck pickup (this as opposed to the numerous thin, nasal-sounding fretless basses we’ve all heard, played, and dreaded).
The party who brought the bass to Will Lee’s apartment had previously reported the hair standing up on his arms as he played a bass melody from “A Remark You Made” along with the recording, and found the tone and duration of the notes were an eerily unmistakable sonic match. Which brings me to the second aspect that struck me (and perhaps this is where my fervent imagination finally took over): how in-tune the bass seemed to play. There were no washy, smeared notes beneath my fingers—just pure, strong tones that sat firmly on the rosewood board. (The bass had new-ish strings that were not Jaco’s favored Rotosounds.)
Equally exciting was the setting at the “Beatles Museum,” as Lee’s home studio is known. Will had a Line 6 LowDown Studio 110 combo and a Roland Cube-100, set to “360”—the modeled Acoustic 360 sound for the amp Jaco swore by. He also had his Fender Custom Shop Jaco fretless on a stand ready to be A/B-ed with the actual Bass of Doom (the bass is sweet, but just no match for the real deal). Will’s lovely wife, Sandrine, was on hand to photograph and videotape the proceedings. Victor Bailey arrived first from his Brooklyn pad, and Victor Wooten—in town to play the Blue Note with Chick Corea—came next. Soon the room was abuzz with Jaco-isms, as the bass passed between the three. “A Remark You Made” seemed to be a popular initial touchstone, but soon the sounds of “Portrait of Tracy,” “Birdland” (false harmonics and all), “Liberty City,” “Teentown,” “Continuum,” “Havona,” “Blackbird,” “(Used to Be a) Cha Cha,” and even Jaco’s Weather Report quote of “The Sound of Music” swirled about. All of this was to the delight of the party who made this bass-heavies-hang possible. His vision for the Bass of Doom is that it be perpetually on the scene, to be played by pros and students alike, thus creating both an ongoing spirit and a happy ending to the Jaco saga.