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The Full Moon Project had to happen. Bobby Thomas Jr., says he owed it to Jaco Pastorius.
In 1982, Thomas, a drummer who had just begun to play professionally, wound up with about the best gig imaginable: touring Japan with storied fusion combo Weather Report. Sweet as it was, the tour was not without its risks. During one Tokyo show, a massive lighting rig originally owned by Pink Floyd turned the stage into an oven. Seated directly behind patriarch/keyboardist Joe Zawinul's equipment, which Thomas recalls being as "loud as a 747 taking off," the drummer became deafened, dehydrated, and disoriented. Following the performance, Thomas staggered back to his room. Within hours, he was hemorrhaging internally, pissing blood, and passing out. Pastorius -- then-bassist for Weather Report and indisputably one of the best ever to play electric bass -- entered the room, hoping to talk Thomas into visiting a discotheque. He found Thomas curled on the floor of his suite, gasping for air. Pastorius jumped on Thomas' stomach, rendering him unconscious but forcing him to breathe again.
"When I came to, Jaco was sitting right there, and that's when he gave me this incredible news," Thomas recalls. "When I asked how I could repay him, that's when he told me he wasn't going to live very long and he wanted me to watch out for his babies. And at that time [Jaco's twin sons] Felix and Julius were babies. I'm a Southern gentleman, and I keep my word."
Although both Pastorius and Thomas left Weather Report shortly thereafter, the two musicians became extremely tight. Thomas, who lives in Miami, remembers often watching the twins toddle around Jaco's Deerfield Beach home. But by the mid '80s Jaco, who reaped more critical acclaim with his group Word of Mouth and session work with Joni Mitchell, was well into a downward spiral of drinking, drugging, and depression. He died in Wilton Manors in September 1987, following a fight with a nightclub bouncer, leaving behind his wife and two sons -- and leaving Thomas with an unpaid debt.
A decade later, Thomas invited Felix Xavier Pastorius to play bass in his band, now called the Full Moon Project, thus taking a first step toward settling up with his old friend's ghost.
"The jobs around town had become so boring to me after playing with Joe [Zawinul] and Wayne Shorter and people like that," Thomas explains. "I can't play with guys my age -- they're too old. So I said to Felix, "Man, when you're ready to play with me, please tell me, 'cause I've had it.' I turned down all the rule-book gigs and went into interior decorating. Then one day, I got a call from Felix. How old were you then, Felix?"
"Um, I was 16," Pastorius replies.
"See, I'm already in my mid-40s, and most of my friends are old as hell already," confides Thomas, a hard-looking man with powerful forearms and hands. "I want to see people dance to what we're doing, and Felix can relate to that: He's a teenager. He inspires me. He has the same fire in his heart that his dad had and Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter had. When I'm on the bandstand with Felix, I feel like I'm 17."
His youthful exuberance notwithstanding, good genes alone wouldn't carry the young Pastorius to the top of the jazz pantheon. "When I first joined Bobby's band it was fairly hard for me," he relates. "I didn't really know what I was doing at that point. I was making it up along the way."
Even though musical instruments were always abundant at the Pastorius home, Felix wasn't born with a bass in his hand. He was, however, born with his dad's double-jointed thumbs, which theoretically makes the instrument easier to play: "I can't imagine how it'd be if I had straight thumbs," says the six-foot-four-inch basketball aficionado. "I'm more flexible -- but I'm used to it, you know? It's just there."
When the Full Moon Project made its live debut on a full-moon evening in mid-September, Thomas promised those gathered at Resurrection Drums in Hallandale Beach: "We're gonna make it nice for you, and a little bit freaky." His poker face not quite concealing a slight case of nerves, Pastorius began by laying down a clipped, funky bass line on his seven-string, then fed it into his Boomerang Phrase Sampler. The machine snatched that snippet, then spit it back as a continuous loop, repeating the rumbling riff again and again. Thomas then crashed into action, grabbing the line and adding an insistent snare and high-hat tug, digging deeper into the groove. Atop this simple but effective substructure, Pastorius began to coax cool, liquid notes from his bass' higher strings, flavoring them with plenty of pedal manipulation, to spin a nimble solo that sounded much like frenzied Frippertronics.
Following that Felix-penned composition known as "Full Moon Theme," the duo took on the suitably complex "Continuum," one of the elder Pastorius' best-known pieces. Another Weather Report classic, "Mr. Gone," may have lacked Jaco's athletic, outlandish overextension on the bass but made up for it with a bottom end deeper than the Marianas Trench. Felix's coruscating solo was of most interest to the Jacophiles in the audience: Could the son pull off his dad's chops? In a word, yes. Afterward Felix says that he was able to feel a palpable pressure the entire night.