The enduring influence of Jaco Pastorius’s Portrait of Tracy

In Lifted, Javon Anderson examines the long-standing relationship between jazz and hip hop.

Samples in hip hop often have a hidden history. This phenomenon also applies to jazz bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius, who is often credited with changing the instrument forever throughout his career as a solo musician and with Weather Report.

Before Jaco came onto the scene in the 1970s, the bass was often thought of as an instrument that could only hold down the low end and support both rhythmic and harmonic elements. In most instances that was certainly true, but Jaco was the kind of musician that broke those rules entirely and made his fretless electric bass sing like a lead instrument on his debut self-titled album in 1976. Besides everyone being blindsided by the way he adapted Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee, another recording tune that stood out was the highly experimental Portrait of Tracy, named after Pastorius’s first wife, Tracy Sexton.

This song showed off not only Jaco’s playing but his uncanny ability as a composer. The song consists almost entirely of bass harmonics, a technique that few had used as extensively before. This gave Portrait of Tracy its ethereal and dreamy tones that established the song as a bass standard and a benchmark for bassists to test their skills.

Eventually, Portrait of Tracy would reach the ears of beatmakers and inspire them to create from it within the context of hip-hop. One of them was El-P, a producer who is very celebrated in underground hip-hop circles for his work on Company Flow, Cannibal Ox and now as half of Run the Jewels. He found this sample and created a mind-bending instrumental from it on the track Pigeons from Cannibal Ox’s cult-classic album The Cold Vein. Pastorius’s song is not only chopped and looped, but manipulated by stretching, pitching down, and layering it with atmospheric sounds, giving the six-minute instrumental plenty of dynamics.

Another example of Portrait of Tracy being sampled was on R&B group SWV’s Rain, released in 1997. Instead of directly taking sounds from the recording, Rain only interpolated the sample, keeping the same melody and chord progression outlined by vocals and keyboards.

A few years later in 2003, Rain was directly sampled on Chingy’s Pullin’ Me Back featuring Tyrese Gibson (who also appeared in the music video for Rain). The song was a a hit; to this day, it has garnered more than 20 million views on YouTube. Both Rain and Pulling Me Back credit Jaco Pastorius as a songwriter.

Even long after Pastorius released Portrait of Tracy, the impact of that composition is still felt within jazz, hip hop and popular music at large.

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