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The New Bass Buzz: an Exclusive Interview with Felix Pastorius

Felix Pastorius

Late last month we broke the news that Felix Pastorius would be joining the Yellowjackets, to fill the shoes of cofounder Jimmy Haslip while he takes a hiatus. This came as a shock to many fans as the switch would end the veteran bassist’s 30-year tenure with the group.

The last name is no coincidence: Felix is the son of bass legend Jaco Pastorius, though his father passed away when Felix was only five years old.

Bass wasn’t Felix’s original instrument, but he began building his own bass playing career after joining his first band at age 15.

In 2002, he joined the experimental Jeff Coffin Mu’tet, where he has honed his chops and musicianship. He has also worked with Cindy Blackman, in addition to running his own band at a weekly gig in New York City.

We caught up with Pastorius to get the whole scoop on the Yellowjackets situation, as well as his start on bass, practice techniques, gear and his father’s influence on his career.

Congratulations on the Yellowjackets gig. Had you met the guys from before, and how did the opportunity come about?

If I had met the Yellowjackets, it was one of the first concerts I ever went to, when I was probably four or five. Yeah, it was a long time ago. Not too long after the band was conceived, I guess. Probably if I had met them – I can’t remember if I did or not – I kind of knew Jimmy [Haslip] and Russell [Ferrante] from that point on, but hadn’t really kept in touch. I had seen them a few times since then, but Bob [Mintzer] – I had actually seen a lot more and been in contact with [him]. Not a whole lot, but more than those guys. Our relationship was brought together again at this past [Jazz Education Network] Conference in 2011 in New Orleans. He sat in with the Jeff Coffin Mu’tet and I was in the band, so we got to play. I’m not even sure that he knew I was playing music, but he was obviously aware of it at that point. It was great to see him and play together. You know, I’ve had the opportunity to play with some of the musicians my father played with and that was the first with Mintzer, and it was great. It was a lot of fun.

So this past December, Jeff was contracted by the Yellowjackets manager to try to get my contact info, because they were interested in auditioning me. I got a call in December from the manager. A few days later I got a call from Mintzer, just telling me what their plan was, what was going on with Jimmy, and that they wanted to fly me out to L.A. to do an audition. So I said, “Awesome, that sounds great.”

What’s it like to have to step into the shoes of Jimmy Haslip? I mean, he’s been with the band since the beginning, and he’s a legend in his own right.

The Yellowjackets with Felix PastoriusAbsolutely. Not only is he a legend in his own right, but he is a major sound of the Yellowjackets, to put it mildly. I mean, he’s one of the cofounders, but the way he writes, the way he thinks and his bass lines are a huge part of the group, so it’s something I definitely have to put into consideration and honor through my playing. [I’ll] try to put my spin on things, but live up to what he’s made.

I’m going to try to continue it the best I can. It’ll be a challenge, but not a hard challenge, you know. It’s going to be an honor to try to continue this, at least for the time being because it’s only a hiatus. It’ll be a workout for me and it will be fun, and it will be a great learning experience, so I’m looking forward to it.

So they’re not going to make you play upside down and lefty [like Haslip]?

[Laughs] Everyone is joking with me about that, and no, they won’t, but I have put in an order for a 6-string. I will go with a B-string relatively soon.

So you’ll be with the band for about a year. What are the group’s plans?

They are booking more dates as we speak. There are some dates already pending. As of right now, there’s definitely a larger tour in May, and then there’s a run at Birdland here in New York for about a week, and then there’s a music festival in Shanghai. Those are for sure everything as far as I know, but they’re constantly adding more gigs.

There’s a possibility to do a tour with Bobby McFerrin in Europe at some point; I think in August. They’re just waiting on the details, especially with Jimmy leaving and everything, they just want to clear things up and make sure it’s all good with the venues and the promoters. They’re being just as aggressive as ever in getting gigs, so hopefully there will be more.

Hopefully I might get out to the West Coast this year, too. We’ll see what happens.

Switching gears a little bit… you didn’t start on bass, right?

Right, I didn’t start on bass, but it’s been my only instrument gigging-wise. I played violin when I was five and piano when I was seven. But as far as gigging and playing out, it’s always been bass.

I played a benefit for my father when I was 11. My twin brother [Julius] and I played a bass duet on “Continuum.” It wasn’t a clear choice when I was 11, but being a bass player was just kind of a nice little ode to our father at this benefit concert/birthday bash thing in New York.

I joined a group when I was 15 and started taking it a little more serious. It was in South Florida, and it was me and one of the percussionists from Weather Report, Bobby Thomas, Jr. He took me under his wing and kind of encouraged me to start playing. He asked me to join the group, and I really hadn’t done anything other than fool around in my living room on bass. It was fun and I enjoyed it.

From that point on, I started being more aggressive with it and spending time with friends and other musicians. [I] never had a teacher or went to school, but [I] spent a lot of time hanging with friends and learning. Because of the benefit of my father being who he was, I had the opportunity just to hang with a lot of great musicians. And I made that an effort, too. Whether it was people coming into town or gigs that I wanted to go see, I was trying to at least be around them and pick up the way they played, the way they hung. It was my type of schooling for myself.

Eventually I started a band with my brother and some friends and played a lot more. I started picking up gigs here and there. I actually started playing with Jeff Coffin about 10 years ago, so it’s slowly just kept moving into a career path from just playing a pentatonic scale in my living room. It just evolved on its own.

Felix and Jaco Pastorius

You touched on it a little, but obviously the combo of you playing bass and having the last name Pastorius instantly changes the game. Did you think about that a lot when you were starting out and do you think that’s had a ton of impact on your career?

You know, I know it’s had an impact on my career. I’m not totally positive what impact, if it was negative or positive. I know it’s changed over the years in my opinion and the way that I see it. You know, I’ve had the ability to try to make a name for myself only because of the musicians that choose to pick me up to play for my ability. It wasn’t ever like I was being taken out there to take advantage of my father’s last name. I’m going to have an audience because people are interested, but it’s up to me to keep them interested in the music, you know?

I don’t want them to try to compare me and him, but it’s inevitable. I’m just trying to have a good time and keep them interested in what’s going on on-stage and our relationship with the audience and our band members.

I don’t know, it’s a difficult question. It’s changed over the years. It used to be harder when I was younger to have this idea of people expecting something from me, but I’m my own biggest critic. I’ve never based my musicianship on someone else’s critique. It’s something where I’ll continue to push myself. I enjoy playing for others and the band members I’m playing with. It’s a work in progress.

Again, I don’t know really how to answer it [since] it’s changed over the years for me. I’m grateful for the people that are coming out because of who my father was. If they want to listen to me because they only know my father, I think that’s awesome and I’m grateful for it. But I’m not trying to sound like him, and I’m not trying to play like him. I’m not him, you know?

It strikes me that a name only goes so far and you’ve obviously built a career for yourself. On the subject of your father, you did transcription for the Hal Leonard books featuring your dad’s work. What was it like to go through that?

That was really just the family handing me an opportunity. I was probably 19 or 20 then, and I was just basically really quickly going over more than anything the tablature for the fingerings. A lot of the fingerings I picked up from over the years were just from being around different bass players playing my father’s tunes. A lot of my learning was through playing my father’s music or the music that he played. Not even his, but like Weather Report and some Herbie [Hancock] stuff, too.

Because of his concept and his style of playing, a lot of his ability was based on his movement around the neck. It wasn’t as simple as just notes on a page; a lot of it is your hand positioning. To be able to play a run as fast as he did, you have to have the forethought to be able to make the jumps and see the notes on the neck. It’s a unique thing.

I was just lightly going over the tablature and seeing how the fingerings looked. I didn’t do a hardcore combing of the entire thing. I was young and the family said, “You should check it out.” My sister and my brothers said, “Yeah, just go over it and see what you think.”

Again, I had to rehash a couple things but they’re great books. It’s awesome. I’m happy that they got put out there. I’m sure a lot of kids and adults too got a kick out it, so I’m happy.

How did you get hooked up with Jeff Coffin?

Well, Jeff called Victor Wooten for a bass player recommendation, and I had just come from one of Victor’s bass camps. It might have been his first, maybe his second. Victor had invited my brother and I and we brought a friend, too. It was as partial students. We were there to interact with kids…

Victor has always been a great mentor and leader and a great friend in person towards me and my family. It was really great, he was just like, “Show up and do whatever you want to do. You can go between classes and hang with anybody.”

I’ve known Victor since I was 14. I met him at a Larry Graham concert in New York. I was there with my mother and a bunch of family and friends. I turned around and saw Victor standing there with his girlfriend and soon to be wife, Holly. I had just learned about Victor. I saw him and turned to my mom and said, “I think that’s Victor Wooten,” and because of me getting more interested in bass, my mom was like, “Well, you should go talk to him.”

That was my first introduction to meeting him and we kept in touch, but he never heard me play. So when I was about 18 or 19 we went to his first or second camp he heard me play. Soon after that Jeff Coffin called him, who I had met briefly at a concert but we didn’t really know each other. He called Victor and Victor recommended me for the gig. Jeff hired me without ever hearing me play, just on Victor’s recommendation.

I was scared shitless, to say the least. I hadn’t really done a whole lot, and this was a musician that was directly connected to one of my favorite bass players, you know? It was an interesting step in my music career, but it was one that had to be done and I knew I couldn’t turn it down. You know, if Victor recommended me, there was no way I could say no. I said yes without ever hearing any of the music we would be playing and Jeff said yes without ever hearing me play.

It’s been a great learning experience for me, and Jeff is a really dear friend of mine now. We obviously spend a lot of time in a lot of vans and on the road in cars and planes, sharing hotel rooms. It’s been a really great gig and we’ve built a really strong relationship. We’ve done some writing, too, and it’s been really important for the last 10 years of my career to have something like that to hone my skills around friends. It’s basically a family, too. We’ve been doing it for so long.

Are you able to work with him still this year?

We’re going to try to work through with both of our schedules. Obviously mine with the Yellowjackets this year and his with Dave Matthews. He was recording… I don’t know if he’s still recording a new album. He’s going to have some time off before they go on tour this year so it’s very possible we’re going to do some Mu’tet stuff, maybe as soon as next month, even. So we’ll see.

There’s also an album that we recorded at the end of 2010 that he’s been mixing and doing some work on it. I’m not sure what he wants to do with that album but it is a great album that we recorded going on almost a year and a half ago. So that will be coming out hopefully soon. I don’t plan on ending that [relationship] in the near future at all. We’ll continue to do as much as we can, but obviously with his schedule, too… I mean, Dave Matthews can be quite busy.

Can you give us a rundown of your gear setup?

Right now I’m using the Aguilar ToneHammer 500 and then two of their 112 cabs. They’re the individual 1×12 cabs. [They’re] super lightweight and it’s ideal for the working musician in a city that doesn’t have a car and takes cabs and the subway and stuff. They’re huge in sound, but easy to maneuver.

That’s my local stuff, but when I go out with the Yellowjackets I’m going to be using their DB751 head their 212 cab. I really enjoy 12’s. They have the reminiscences of the 10 punch but with just a little more meat behind it.

As far as the bass, I’ve been borrowing a bass for the last year and three months. I left my bass in the back of a cab in November of 2010 and never got it back.

What a bummer!

Yeah. It wasn’t a very expensive bass, and it was given to me, too. I loved it though, and I spent a lot of time on it. I’m under the impression that your instrument is something that you grow with. For me, I could spend five years on a Squier and if it feels comfortable and it sounds right and I make it sing, that’s all that matters to me. It was a hard thing to have to give up. There was really no tracking it down.

At that point, my dear friend Mike Bendy, who is another great bass player, lent me his Fodera. So I’ve been playing his Fodera, which is his design. It’s a really, really beautiful bass. It’s a 5-string, [strung] E to C. Ash body, ash neck, rosewood fretboard, 33-inch scale. It’s really a standout bass. I spent just over a year on it. I’m going to have to give it up eventually, but I’ve been very lucky to borrow such an amazing instrument.

So how about the new 6-string you’re getting – is it a special design?

It’s kind of my own model. It’s going to be a medium-scale at 33-inches, but it’s a 6-string with 27-frets. The body is going to be slimmed down a little bit. It’s going to be an Emperor II style but slimmed down with more of a cutaway on the bottom horn to get down to that 27th fret, and I’m going to have a Hipshot on the B-string so all in all it’ll have a four and a half octave range, from a low A to a high Eb.

Nice! That’s sounds pretty wicked.

Yeah, it should be fun. I’m looking forward to it.

You mentioned that you’re self taught. What is your practice routine like, and how do you practice?

I’ll give you a quick walk through. Originally when I started playing the bass I learned the pentatonic scale, which I’m pretty sure everybody learns at some point early on. I played that a lot, then through continued learning of theory I associated the pentatonic scale, which originally always saw as minor, to other minor scales. Eventually it became the practicing of lots of scales, but now I’m at the point where I’m actually going backwards. I’m starting from the beginning with the least amount of notes possible and adding to that.

I practice a lot of inversions. Basically like a lot of keyboard players or horn players would do, I’ll take the simple triad, be it major, minor, diminished or augmented, and I’ll learn it as many different ways as I can possibly think of in every key. Then when I’m bored enough with that after a month, I’ll go to four notes. It takes a while.

I’m one of those guys… other than learning all of the Yellowjackets music, when I’m practicing I like to kind of beat things into the ground. Something as simple as a major triad to me could take months to practice, just because there are so many different options. I mean, it’s the benefit but also the curse of playing a stringed instrument tuned in fourths. There are so many variables and options and different ways of playing things.

For me it’s always going to be about working out my hands and putting them in uncomfortable, unusual positions so they don’t become uncomfortable and unusual if I ever find myself in that position. It’s a work in progress.

I spent a lot of time this past year with the guitar player that Jeff picked up when Kofi Burbridge couldn’t make some of the gigs with the Mu’tet. Jeff picked up this really great guitarist out of Knoxville, Tennessee named Mike Seal. We spent a lot of time in Jeff’s van just going back and forth working on ideas. He kind of put a bug in me to get some kind of writing out there. Some kind of book that explains some of the stuff I do. I don’t know exactly how I would do it, but it could be something eventually.

Awesome, let us know when you do! What else do you have on the horizon? A solo album maybe?

The solo album is something that I could definitely do, but that’s kind of… for me that kind of goes into the land of my father. It’s kind of hard to think of because as soon as I think of a solo album, or any bass solo album, there’s really only one for me, and that’s my father’s. So that’s kind of a touchy subject. I mean, there are others; Victor Wooten’s A Show of Hands is a classic too, or something like Stanley [Clarke]’s School Days is one of the greatest also.

But for me, it’s really just my father’s with his face on the cover. To do a solo bass album, it’s something I want to do but it’s just a touchy subject.

I’ve done some writing with Jeff. With the Yellowjackets, if it gets to the point where they would want me to write with them, if there’s at all a point this year and I’m not sure there is, I would love to be a part of that.

But I’ve done some writing, and I have a band here in New York. We play every Monday at the Zinc Bar. We’ve got originals, and we definitely want to get out and play some more stuff and do some writing together as a group. That could be the closest thing to a solo album because it’s a little closer to the heart as far as my style and the way I grew up.

I’m playing with the Yellowjackets now, but I grew up listening to the Chili Peppers and Primus, you know? We have a little bit more of a hard edge thing, kind of New York thing going on. That might happen soon.