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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.
"A lot of people are expecting it from me, so it's hard sometimes," Pastorius admits. "People are going to be looking at me to be able to do the same stuff."
Felix's style has some elements in common with Jaco's: His amazingly long fingers seem to fly over the fretboard, playing chords, adding melodic glissandos instead of merely pouring a foundation. "You've got one billion other guys out there copying Jaco, and some quite badly," Thomas notes. "So for his own son to go out and play some of his licks and nail it, I think is a beautiful thing." But in addition to using new technology like the Boomerang, Felix has updated his father's technique as well, bringing physicality to the fore, indulging in string-slapping to fully unfurl the funk.
"I told Felix, "Your dad left his story behind, now it's time for you to tell yours,'" adds Thomas. ""Quite frankly, I'm not playing '80s music anymore. I'm going for something a lot more modern. That's why I can't play with a 40-year-old cat. I need you, Felix, to do your thing.'"
The debut gig also introduced guitarist Ben Broomfield, an acid-washed Hendrix disciple who immediately added some plot thickener to the set, throwing sparks that contrasted dramatically with Felix's fat, elliptical notes. Spurred by Thomas' complex hard-bop and the FleameetsJohn McLaughlin proficiency of Pastorius, Broomfield took a three-minute composition called "Future Dance" and literally tore it apart, eviscerating the tune with sheets of knife-edged guitar chords.
Drumming is inherently punishing, but Thomas tries to work over his kit and congas like he's Evander Holyfield pummeling his next victim, often striking the heads with the palm or edge of his bare hand. "A lot of the rhythms I use come from tabla roots," he explains. "I also have a boxing and karate background, and I mix in a lot of kung fu when I'm playing hand drums."
Now, the Full Moon Project has a perfect symbiotic relationship at its core. Thomas probably could have been content to match curtains with love seats and name-drop Weather Report alumni for many more years, but his affiliation with the younger Pastorius has invigorated him. It's clear that Felix's youth, innovation, and love of technology and hip-hop rhythms have pushed Thomas in a direction he never would have found otherwise. Very little of what transpired that night is likely to stoke the fires of the trad-jazz snobs, who don't readily embrace the unorthodox, especially if that modernization comes in the form of new gizmos and "concessions" to the dance floor. But it's precisely this nose-thumbing at conventions that gives the band its strength.
"Our market will be college kids," Thomas insists. "We want to make our music radio-friendly, so the people can get a badass jam in four minutes, not twelve, like bands used to do. I want the world to know we're not a jazz band by any means."
Felix knows he must emerge from the shadow of his dad's imposing legacy if he's to be seen as a musician in his own right, and he's painfully aware that his position as "son of a star" comes with even heavier Samsonite than most.
"I was very young when I hung out with my dad," Felix says slowly, searching for memories. "I remember a couple gigs; I remember eating some of my mom's famous garlic noodles, hanging out in the back yard. I wasn't looking at him as a great musician ... I didn't know what that was at that point. I was just looking at him as a dad." Although he claims that "Weather Report made some of the best music ever," Felix points out that it's important to realize that he wasn't taught by his father, nor does he play his instruments.
"A lot of people are really interested in that," he says softly. "But I was only five when he died. I look at this as an opportunity to do something on my own. But it's really helpful for him to have opened the path for me."