Fire in the Bloodlines

Laid back in the pocket
Michael Bloom

Fusion. Within music, it's practically a dirty word. Though the term is intended to suggest the magic of endless possibilities, it has an unmistakably loaded ring to it. And much as in the realm of cuisine, anything that bears the "fusion" tag is likely to stir up derision, controversy, and debates about purity.

And not without good reason.

But if any of that was a concern to bass legend and hometown hero Jaco Pastorius when he rose to prominence in 1976, it was all rendered moot by his brash confidence and natural fluidity. That year, no less than five albums came out bearing Jaco's highly individual stamp, which more or less did for the electric bass what Jimi Hendrix's style did for the electric guitar.

Jaco was known for blending genres and breaking most conventional rules of music, both as a frontman for his own group and during his tenure in the pioneering fusion band Weather Report. Fast-forward 30 years, and the current fusion trio of the Bendy Pastorius Group seems to be picking up right where Weather Report left off and, in fact, exploring that approach even further. These relatively young twentysomething musicians take the challenging structures and chord progressions of jazz and give them a fresh twist, so that jazzheads and non-aficionados can dig them at the same time. In working with the more recognizable elements of rock, hip-hop, and R&B and the distinctly modern crossover groove of like-minded acts like Soulive, the Bad Plus, and Medeski, Martin & Wood, the Bendy Pastorius Group always keeps one foot firmly rooted in tradition. That's no surprise at all, considering that it was co-founded by one of Jaco's sons, drummer Julius Pastorius.

It's fitting that the younger Pastorius recently relocated from Deerfield Beach to the New York City area, as the band, which at times includes Julius' twin brother Felix on bass, came together during many trips between New York and Florida. Both Julius and bassist/co-founder Mike Bendy would visit each other and stay for a while in each other's respective towns, writing together and playing gigs.

Though the band didn't make its official debut until last year, the seeds of the Bendy Pastorius Group were planted eight years ago, when Bendy noticed the Pastorius brothers in New York City during the 2000 installment of Bass Day, an annual event hosted by Bass Player magazine and the Bass Collective. The three of them hung out the next day, ate some food together, but nothing immediately happened beyond that. Two years later, Bendy recalls he felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to Jaco's gravesite here in Florida. On that trip, he reached out to the Pastorius twins and even showed up at their door unannounced. They received him with open arms, and both he and Julius describe an instant personal and musical chemistry between them.

"Right off the bat," explains Julius, "the grooves we were doing just clicked perfectly."

"He's definitely my favorite drummer I've ever played with," Bendy enthuses.

Both speak of their relationship with each other in the same terms that they do of their own blood brothers. In fact, it would be years before Felix Pastorius and guitarist John Bendy entered the picture. Until 2007, Mike and Julius played as the duo Shotgun Face during off-time from their respective projects, the Bendy Brothers and Way Of The Groove. For over three years, Shotgun Face stalked clubs and open mic nights in both South Florida and New York before an auspicious turn of events found both sets of brothers together onstage for two impromptu shows in Maine.

On a short East Coast tour, the rest of Way of the Groove's personnel had abandoned ship by the time the group reached Maine, leaving the Pastorius brothers without a band. The Bendys, meanwhile, had shown up simply to hang out with their long-distance friends. Julius says that those first performances fell into place easily. The foursome was able to draw on material from both Shotgun Face and the Bendy Brothers, some of which Julius was already familiar with, as he'd previously sat in on drums. And then, of course, everyone was heavily steeped in Jaco's work.

When they first started out as a full-time quartet, even with two bassists firing away emulating Jaco, everyone onstage made room for each other. As hard as it is to believe, Julius and Mike Bendy both insist that it's no sweat for the band to accommodate both basses.

"You've gotta keep it tasteful," Bendy says. "Can't be fuckin' jerkin' off. We're not trying to show who's got the biggest guns."

Julius' perspective sheds a little more light.

"Their styles are so different," he explains. "They're both so good at listening. They were able to work around each other. They both know when to back off and where to come in."

This isn't so much an issue anymore as Felix now lives on the West Coast to better meet the demand for his work as a session and touring sideman. He only appears with the band now on a schedule-permitting basis.

But it still takes a deft ear to meld all of this together, which Julius admits is one of his own strengths.

"Having big ears is a really important thing," he says. "As a drummer, that's my main thing. I'm always trying to listen to the groove that Mike is laying down. When someone else is soloing, I listen for whatever accents I can throw in to build the other person's sound up as well."

That said, when cueing up "Northern," the first tune on the band's MySpace page — or, for that matter, anything else that the BPG has recorded — the utter aggression of everyone in the band almost lunges out at your ears. When John Bendy starts to spray paint the music with a constant barrage of sizzling guitar flashes, it immediately becomes clear how the group can accommodate two lead-style bassists when Felix is in town.

As assertively as everyone plays, the band shows impeccable taste in its execution of the groove, with each player creating his own pocket so that the music doesn't sound busy. It's no small feat, nor is the band's deft avoidance of fusion clichés. To their own benefit, everyone in the band is (more or less) self-taught and, interestingly enough, Julius says he didn't really get serious on the drums until the initially-more-musical Felix started to as well.

"To tell you the truth, I wanted to be a comic book artist," Julius says. "I was really dedicated to that up until I was around 15. At that time, Felix was playing with Bobby Thomas Jr., the percussionist who used to play with my father in Weather Report. They had a trio. Felix was still young and developing as a musician but was still amazing enough to hold his own. But Felix needed somebody to practice with at the house."

Julius says his hip-hop background helps anchor the group. As a young listener, he gravitated to rap long before he could relate to jazz, and still longs to work in a hip-hop context. Whether that happens any time soon or not, the accessibility of the Bendy Pastorius Group's music is possibly at the highest it's ever been. They're making thinking man's jazz laced with enough elements to draw in lovers of funk, pop, bop, hip-hop, and beyond.

"We keep pushing this really hard, solid groove that pulses through the music always," Julius says. "That takes it a little more away from the jazz and maybe makes it easier to listen to."

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