Bill Laswell: Like a Version
As a bassist, Bill Laswell is deep. And with some 560 albums to his credit as a player/producer, he's a world of musical possibilities unto himself.
Would that his career arc could be neatly summed up as, say, a long evolution from the jazz-funk maximalism of the early '80s, when he rocked the downtown New York scene's socks with Material, to the luminous minimalism of his decade-long obsession with ambient electronica and dank, dark dub. That would omit dozens of forays into Asian, Caribbean, Latin, Middle Eastern, Indian and African styles, a stint with Daevid Allen's hippie-happy Gong, the funk-metal chaos magick of Praxis and countless other collaborations, serendipitous meetings, work for hire and goofy one-offs.
"I don't necessarily do jazz or reggae or blues or anything," Laswell said recently from the Manhattan home he shares with his wife, the intoxicating Ethiopian singer Gigi. "I deal mostly with sound and combinations of sounds." Laswell had just finished remixing tracks by Hasidic-reggae singer Matisyahu's group, and I wondered if he considered his thousands of tracks either as one big enveloping project or as many points on a long time line. "I always feel as though it's just starting," he replied. "It's always good to constantly reinvent and renew the process and approach."
Laswell's earliest work, which you can hear on the Secret Life collection of Material's groundbreaking 1979-81 12-inches, or on his whomping 1982 solo album Baselines, can still shoot the shock of the new up your spine. Laswell's eMusic offerings, however, concentrate on the many ambient, dub and remix projects he's either helmed or contributed to during the latter half of his career. And if the more than two dozen albums on this site have a theme, it's the evolving and indisputably inevitable fusion of us warm and squishy organic creatures with our digital-mechanical creations.
Laswell acknowledges that much of his work reflects this, adding, "It's really about how to create a balance. You hope people are open-minded and there's a musicality or feel to the performance, whether it's programmed or played. It's not just about having the right gear or thinking you're going to sound like someone you like. Music comes from a much deeper place that's a total mystery. As it should be."
At the core of Laswell's dub output lays his four-part Sacred System series. Laswell starts out sounding bold yet beholden to the great Jamaican producers King Tubby and Lee Perry on 1996's Sacred System Chapter One: Book of Entrance — although neither of them ever attempted a 16-minute epic like "Sub Terrain." Eight years and two heady volumes later, Sacred System: Book of Exit features Gigi's warm, pan-African pipes on tracks such as "Ethiopia" and the Cinemascope "Jerusalem," a thick, rich blend of Eastern and Western spiritualities. The only thing derivative here is when Laswell versions himself. He's gleefully green in the way he constantly composts the past for fresh foliage.
But quantity can be confusing. How, for example, does Laswell's mid-'90s Psychonavigation series with German ambient producer Pete Namlook differ from the duo's Outland run? "I'm not sure it does," Laswell chuckled before acknowledging that the Outland albums 'African and Middle Eastern rhythms do contrast with the Psychonavigation discs 'often nearly beatless atmospherics. Namlook subsequently brought in Tangerine Dream's Klaus Schulze for the Dark Side of the Moog series, at which point Laswell says he lost track. "I don't really remember what a lot of those records were," he admits. "I mixed some of them, and in other cases I just gave them elements and never really knew — or can't remember — what they did with them. It was all done pretty quickly. Namlook liked to hurry up and put things out. At that point he'd put out hundreds of records and I think he was known more for the amount of records than for the amount of music."
While Namlook does make Laswell look like a slacker in comparison, the latter has survived, even flourished, thanks to a relentless work ethic and volume, volume, volume. He's currently working on an album of live drum 'n 'bass that juxtaposes ten young beatsmen with "players who would normally not have anything to do with that," like saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, both jazz legends. And look out for more album-length remix projects akin to Emerald Aether: Shape Shifting/Reconstructions Of Irish Music, his magically delicious rhythmic mutation of source material performed by Solas, Karan Casey, and Jerry O'Sullivan.
Laswell views the future of music distribution as a combination of live shows, DVDs and CDs distributed by artists themselves. "I'm tired of being at the mercy of labels that will tell you how great something is and then fold within a week," Laswell complains with characteristic candor. "It's no secret that the majors are falling apart. All the money at a record company goes to pay the top people who don't do any work. They have to fire all the people who actually do work in order to afford the presidents and CEOs, people who actually don't even like music. No, I don't see much hope for labels."