It’s a vaguely familiar name to music nerds: Bill Laswell. He’s known as a skilled bassist who’s played with bunch of New York scenesters – David Byrne, Laurie Anderson and others – and as a producer-for-hire, having worked with bands as diverse as Yoko Ono, Buckethead, Herbie Hancock, and White Zombie.
Obviously, there’s more to him than that. Much more, actually. There are dozens of solo records; bins stuffed with collaborations and many, many remixes and production credits that bear his fingerprints and playing. It can be daunting for newcomers and the curious, even more so than usual since there isn’t a definitive Laswell box set, let alone a best of CD.
However, like I did for Frank Zappa a few years back, I’ve dug into the Laswell archives and picked out a few of his records to spotlight. They’re not the cream of the crop and some aren’t exactly an easy listen, but each offers a view of Laswell’s strengths as a musician, arranger and producer. Use them as stepping-stones to get deeper into the career of a curiously overlooked musician.
Baselines (1983, Charley Records)
One of Laswell’s first credits came on Brian Eno and David Byrne’s 1981 record My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Laswell appeared on just one track, the talk radio sampling funk track “America Is Waiting.” It obviously made an imprint, as Laswell’s first record shows: there’s even a funk jam juxtaposed against a radio televangelist. With a supporting cast including Ronald Shannon Jackson, Michael Beinhorn, George Lewis, and Fred Frith, Laswell made a free-flowing record of hard beats, tricky rhythms and all kinds of weird assorted sounds, using some of New York’s most interesting, experimental musicians.
A good example is “Work Song,” the second cut on the record and also it’s longest. Driven by Jackson’s drumming, a horn/keyboard riff and Laswell’s funky bass line, it starts off as jazz-funk, albeit one punctuated with shortwave radio. Soon the rhythm is shifting, with Jackson playing off the beat, bursts of static and everyone soloing at once.
As a whole, the record doesn’t have the same scope as My Life…, but shares a similar, let’s try it out ethos. In this sense, it’s also not far from No Wave staples like James White and the Contortions. It’s an auspicious beginning to an interesting, constantly changing career.
Last Exit (1986, Enemy Records)
In 1986, Laswell brought back Jackson for the all-star, free jazz group Last Exit. joining them were two of the loudest, most unique musicians in, well, anything: reed player Peter Brotzmann and guitarist Sonny Sharrock. Brotzmann’s resume was mostly in European, avant-garde jazz, while Sharrock had kicked around the fringes of jazz in the States (his most high-profile appearance was on Miles Davis’ 1971 record A Tribute to Jack Johnson) but had to be coaxed out of retirement.
Last Exit wasn’t together long, but they left an impression as one of the loudest, most punishing ensembles ever. In the 80s, Miles was playing Cindy Lauper and Michael Jackson tunes and Wynton Marsalis was pushing for a return to jazz’s roots. And here was a four piece, playing with the amplifiers cranked the max, Brotzmann’s blistering sax and Jackson pushing the rhythm, adding up to some of the most frantic playing maybe ever. Their debut record was a rough and uncompromising live show in Paris, it’s ~40 minute runtime more powerful than a nuclear reactor.
After this came other, even more furious live records: The Noise of Trouble, recorded live in Japan (and featuring an insane cameo by Herbie Hancock); Koln (another 1986 show), Cassette Recordings ’87. There was even a studio record, too. However, things came to a premature end in 1994 with Sharrock’s death. Since then, they’ve continued to be both influential and divisive, a talented group who’s furious playing seems effortless but is anything but. Don’t believe me? Ginger Baker was inspired by them to start No Material, a free-jazz group that included both Sharrock and Brotzmann (plus two more). They lasted just three gigs, breaking up a week after their first show.
Axiom Funk: Funkronomicron (1995, Island Records)
In 1989, Laswell helped launched Axiom Records, which was part of Island Records. It’s goal was essentially to release records by people Laswell worked with or just liked. It’s releases included output from Laswell projects like Material, field recordings and solo records by Ginger Baker, Sonny Sharrock, and Ronald Shannon Jackson.
The 1995 sampler Axiom Funk: Funkcronomicon offers a nice snapshot of the kind of musis released by this label, while also being a fantastic piece of P-Funk exotica. For example, there’s “Under the Influence,” where George Clinton ties the “Jes Grew” mania from Mumbo Jumbo to funk rock as a band including Herbie Hancock, Sly and Robbie, and Bootsy Collins lay down a slick, jazzy groove. There’s “Orbitron Attack,” a 12-minute guitar freakout by the late Eddie Hazel, with Bootsy and Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey pushing his playing forward. And the NPG-era Prince indebted “Sax Machine,” complete with jangling guitar riffage, two bass players (Bootsy and Laswell) and even a sax solo.
Perhaps most compelling is the cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9,” which turns his psychedelic rock into an almost ambient funk: it opens with spacey, open playing by Buckethead, before Bootsy moves in with “space bass,” and a dry reading of Hendrix’s lyrics. It doesn’t rock, yet it’s absolutely in touch with Hendrix’s ethos.
Axiom’s last release came years ago, the label a victim of label shuffling and consolidation. However this tasty compilation is still easily available: you can score a digital copy for under $10. Laswell’s resuscitated a few careers in his time, but here he nearly brought a whole genre back to life.
Means of Deliverance (Innerrhythmic, 2012)
Right from the start, Laswell was known for his bass playing. An electric bassist, anyway. A couple of years ago, Laswell decided to learn to play acoustic bass. It resulted in Means of Deliverance, one of his most experimental and rewarding records.
It’s an interesting document. His playing mixes sonic textures and shows a deft touch on a tough-to-master acoustic instrument (as per MOD Technologies, it was a Warwick Alien 4 string fretless, not an upright), particularly in the kinds of tones he gets in it’s higher registers. In this sense, it holds it’s own next to records like Dave Holland’s Emerald Tears. But, like most of his projects, it also takes on a life of it’s own.
Rather than play standards or his back catalogue, Laswell wrote new songs for this, where he overdubbed over himself, turning sections into riffs, building songs out of his lines and turning his solo instrument into a band. His playing is sometimes emotional (“Against the Upper House”) and sometimes forceful (“Ouroboros” or “Buhala“). And when he mixes in new elements, like his wife’s singing or his use of an e-bow, the results are stunning (“Bagana_Sub Figura X”).
Perhaps the best, most interesting moments come halfway through the record, on “In Failing Light.” Here, his playing takes twists and turns but hovers around a central vamp, while the overdubbed sections add colour and texture. It turns what could’ve been a simple recital into a song, complete with chorus and accents. At times, it’s reminiscent of post-rock groups like Explosions In the Sky, at others of Holland’s free jazz. But it’s never dull, which is the first thing you’d think a solo acoustic bass record would be.
Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis (1998, Sony)
Over the years, Laswell’s worked on many, many records, both as a producer and on assorted remixes. It’s from this work that’s probably best known to casual fans. Some of his best production work has come in his album-length remixes, where he digs into the vaults to re-create (or even re-imagine from scratch) a classic record.
While he’s done records like this for Tony Williams, Santana and Bob Marley, my favourite of the bunch is his exploration into the Miles Davis archives, Panthalassa. Here Laswell went back to the original tapes, remixed and re-edited material, juxtaposing different lineups from Miles electric, experimental years and showing not just how well the music’s aged, but how it continues to be a driving force in music, everywhere from ambient to funk to rock.
In a sense, he doing what Teo Macero did in the 70s, although Laswell said at the time Macero’s work was “sloppy” and “could have been done better.” Perhaps, but I’d take that with a grain of salt.
Indeed, he puts his stamp on things, juxtaposing the world-funk of “Black Satin,” against the sizzling guitar and bass of the previously unreleased “What If” before settling into a dub-influenced remix of “Agharta Prelude,” another then-unreleased track (both have since been released on the Complete on the Corner box set, as per Miles Ahead’s detailed discography). And his remix of “Rated X” draws out the percussive backbeat, turning an aural panic attack into a driving, relentless funk, which seguely deftly into a jagged remix of “Billy Preston.”
While I’d argue sometimes it doesn’t work – his versions of “In A Silent Way” and “He Loved Him Madly” don’t have the same energy and impact as the originals – the best moments of Panthalassa show a different perspective of an underappreciated era. Which is really the sort of thing a remix album should do.
Still curious for more Laswell? Don’t sleep on the first Material LP, Memory Serves; his soundtrack record Tuwaqachi: The Fourth World; the other Axiom compilation Lost in the Translation; or his work with The Golden Palominos, Praxis and Massacre.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.