The Austin Chronicle

Trawling Panthalassa

Sound Sorcerer Bill Laswell Takes Miles Davis

By David Lynch, May 1, 1998, Music

Long before antiquity, all the earth's terra firma was contained in one gigantic land mass called Pangea. Geological forces pulled apart Pangea, the fragments forming today's seven continents. The ocean that lapped up on the shores of Pangea was the one, primordial sea: Panthalassa. And as of last week, that term now also refers to the latest release from Columbia's Miles Davis tape vaults. Spanning 1969-1974, one of Davis' more creative periods - which is saying something, given his artistic output - Panthalassa is composed from three albums: the revolutionary In a Silent Way, the street-wise On the Corner and the raw Get Up With It. According to the liner notes for Panthalassa, this latest release is a "reconstruction and mix translation by Bill Laswell."

While you might not recognize the name, Bill Laswell is something of a legend in the music industry. A musician, arranger, producer, band leader, label chief, and creative catalyst par excellence, Laswell's 25-year career of making and re-making music may not afford his name household recognition, but unless you've been living under a boulder for the last quarter century, chances are you've heard and enjoyed his work. Frank Zappa, often cited for his prodigious quality output, has over 50 releases. Laswell's stamp is on nearly 200.

Okay, so Laswell is prolific, but did Davis need to be "reconstructed?"

"I don't know if anything needs anything," declares Laswell, his amiable but intense personality coming across loud and clear over the phone. "It was already constructed when we heard it as product, so to continue reconstructing it makes total sense because I think it can sound better. Originally, we just heard one possible version of the music."

With Pantalassa you'll hear a completely different version altogether. Like last year's superb Dreams of Freedom: Ambient Translations of Bob Marley in Dub, Laswell's latest remixing project takes the nuclear-powered groove of one of the 20th Century's greatest musicians, and catapults it even farther into the stratosphere. Back to the future. Given the currently listless nature of modern jazz, Panthalassa is traditional, modern, and forward-looking all at the same time. Like Miles Davis, this is not something that comes along every day. Maybe not for a long time.

Many felt jazz reached an apex with Davis' mid-Sixties quintet, but Davis, as always, was not content to sit on his ass while the accolades flowed in. From his autobiography, Miles, you can almost hear his smoky voice say: "1968 was full of all kinds of changes, but for me, the changes that were happening in my music were very exciting and the music that was happening everywhere was incredible. These things were leading me into the future and into In a Silent Way." "That particular record to me always represented a transition point," remembers Laswell. "Bitches Brew was recorded not long after, but there was something about In a Silent Way that broke from the other records. It was also the first record really put together brutally edit-wise, as sections of tape."

As a much in-demand producer, Laswell is well aware of the artistic possibilities of studio manipulation. In addition to his myriad production credits, Laswell also runs Axiom Records, a label he founded in 1990 under the aegis of Chris Blackwell's Island Records. Axiom houses music that laughs at categorization. From the headswirl of the Master Musicians of JaJouka's Apocalypse Across the Sky to the urban tinderbox of Umar Bin Hassan's Be Bop or Be Dead, Axiom consistently and successfully pirouettes in artistic areas where weaker labels fear to tread.

Laswell grew up in the midwest, moving around quite a bit while young. Starting with school ensembles and progressing to paid gigs, Laswell played bass in cover bands, performing a steady diet of Wilson Pickett, the Ohio Players, the Temptations, the Meters, and James Brown. Realizing that the region could not hold his attention nor sufficiently stimulate his creativity, Laswell emigrated to New York.

Shortly after arriving, he eagerly sought out like-minded musicians, a search that yielded the group Material. This avant-garde improvisational band released music each year during 1979-1984 and to this day still breaks genres wide open. This period also saw Laswell join up with comrades Henry Threadgill, John Zorn, and Fred Firth in NY's teeming "downtown" scene.

Another advantage of living in New York was the opportunity to learn from daring sonic artisans like Brian Eno. In addition to working with Eno and David Byrne on the provocative My Life With the Bush of Ghosts, Laswell joined forces with Eno on the ambient On Land, a project in which Eno sacked all other staff, leaving only Laswell to assist. Did the well-known British cultural commentator and musician/producer sense Laswell's musical aptitude?

"At that time I wasn't really thinking about the word `production' at all," says Laswell. "I wanted to play with people I could learn from. I learned a lot from Eno's approach, because he wouldn't necessarily use a system to arrive at a result. Like if we bought a new drum machine, he would immediately toss away the manual. That always produced something interesting."

Laswell channeled these and other experiences into his unique artistic vision. This acumen reached its first zenith in 1983 when Laswell connected with Herbie Hancock on the latter's Future Shock. This album included "Rockit," a tune that merged funky keys, bata drums, and turntable scratching, a type of mixing that's not uncommon today, but in typical Laswell fashion, ingenious and innovative for the time. The song was a huge hit for Hancock and a serious calling card for Laswell.

In addition to working with Material and releasing his first solo effort Basslines, the mid-Eighties Laswell quickly climbed up the list of hot producers. Within the next few years he would produce/play with Ornette Coleman, Ginger Baker, Iggy Pop, John Lydon, Mick Jagger, and Peter Gabriel, just to name a few. Not bad for someone who had recently moved to New York.

Laswell's much-underrated bass playing lives under the shadow of this mixing board and arranging experience. His ability to move from George Porter wah-wah runs to windswept screams to Robbie Shakespeare slides, all the while anchoring the low end, is undoubtedly why he's so respected as a playing producer.

"It's essential," says Laswell about the dual role. "I couldn't stress that enough. Engineering producers who don't play and have technology as a background may be the reason why there's a lot of cold non-musical music, for lack of a better description."

Okay, so in addition to being a Grade-A producer, Laswell is also a gifted musician. It's easy to see why, then, there was never much of a question for
Columbia as to who to bring in for the remix project; rather than "Why Him?" it was a case of "Who Else?"

"I definitely grew up listening to that music and I've had a tremendous amount of experience with the musicians who played on those albums since that time, a lot of them in fact," remarks Laswell. "So, I'm familiar and that helps, instead of just coming in as another album to remix. That's absolutely not the case with this project.

"Columbia said they were going to make an assault on the Miles catalog, remixing and remastering a lot of the records, and we talked about me being somehow involved in his electric period. I said there were people who would be better at repackaging it, so I really didn't pursue it. But in talking to them over the years, I realized that eventually someone's going to get around to doing it. I wanted to put in a bid for that before it got out of control."

"Out of control" is a euphemism for what happens when working with a transnational corporation like Sony. Panthalassa, perhaps Laswell's best work to date, has been finished for months, yet the release date has been moved back several times. "I was just glad to have the opportunity to hear the music and be able to work with it a little bit, and contribute something to it," says Laswell - you can almost hear the shrug. "I'm also amazed because almost no one does anything that makes sense in the business. It's a miracle it happened at all."

Panthalassa is described as a "mix translation." What exactly is a "mix translation"?

"It just means moving energy from one place to another," Laswell states. "It's all energy that we're dealing with and translating means making it understood to someone else, bringing it to them in a language that they speak."

Laswell's translations are indeed successful: ask any DJ, mixologist, or music maven if they've ever heard of Laswell and odds are you'll hear a favorable reply. One reason is that Laswell excels in creatively using technology. Though some are still in denial about this, and the fact that it will always effect the generation of music, technological advancement often equals aesthetic development. This fact is especially conspicuous within the last two decades as the rise of digitization permits heretofore difficult, if not impossible, acts of recording and editing. The rise of new technologically based musical forms, such as jungle's hyperkinetic drum beats, hip-hop's fertile sampling, or electronica's cut-and-paste pastiche, would not have been possible previously. By deftly utilizing technology, while not becoming a slave to it, Laswell, like Davis, must viewed as a one of the founding fathers of these techno styles.

Nevertheless, purists have flamed on Laswell for diluting or worse, polluting, musical forms by combining them in new ways, and it's no doubt these purists who'll question the need to alter Davis' music as well.

"I don't know what a purist is, I guess that's someone who's stuck," is Laswell's response. "There is no purist in this work. This work was determined by tape manipulation, splicing, editing, repeating, removing, moving around, flipping over, inside out. It's no different than how we're making records today with samples. These records have nothing to do with jazz, they have nothing to do with that tradition. They broke from that tradition and they have everything to do with just being creative, combining sounds, instruments, players, characters, presence and personality."

So Panthalassa, in technique at least, is no different than original producer Teo Macero's version?

"It's music that lends itself to interpretation continuously. As long as it's done with some kind of quality focus and some integrity, there's no reason not to continue altering it, changing it, manipulating it, and Miles Davis would not disagree," says Laswell, who knew Davis and had many discussions with him about music.

"Black Satin," the second musical suite from Panthalassa - there are four suites - is full of Davis' resonant spirit. Resembling a seasoned Byzantine artist matching tiles for a beautifully rare mosaic, Laswell seamlessly blends the crazy whistle/trumpet duo line, producing an effect that's difficult to attain with analog editing. Laswell then changes the aural focus to Al Foster, whose drum craftsmanship propels things along with a New Orleans-style shuffle beat. In Laswell's mix, the vitality of the quintet's intrepid improvisations shine and move. Flow is the key.

"That's what you're striving for," explains Laswell. "If you break that, you're losing continuity and people's interest. In dealing with any kind of repetitive music, whether it's Indian, African, or trance music, the essence of it contains a flow, which is a kind of magic.

"It's just a matter of looking and finding," Laswell says about the recent interest in trance and world music. "It's people learning, expanding and looking for alternatives. They know there's something wrong with what we're taught, how we live. And because communication is putting people closer together, information is easily accessible now, and everyone's learning."

Still, Laswell is less hopeful about the outcome.

"It'll be manipulated to death and the business will take over and kill it, I'm sure. But it's a moment when people are fighting the oppressive restraint. Control is being questioned."

In addition to being candid, Laswell is a contemporary new music conductor, translating music by subtly emphasizing and juxtaposing essential elements. Not conducting dead white men music with a baton, but rather culling the world's most crucial music and applying his aesthetic magic wand to it. Bill Laswell sound sorcerer, Musical Merlin, modern-day Lee "Scratch" Perry.

So what's next for Laswell?

"A new album by James Blood Ulmer; a remixing job for George Clinton," he answers. "I also am working on a sort of drum and bass album with Zakir Hussain. Oh, and something new with Pharaoh Sanders."

Anyone he'd like to work with but hasn't?

"There's a lot of people in hip-hop that I'd like to see work with other kinds of musicians, and not in just jazz or world music. I also like to work with the guitarist in ZZ Top."

Billy Gibbons?

"Yeah, I'd like to work with him," says Laswell, whose mother grow up around Dallas.

In the liner notes of In a Silent Way, writer Frank Glenn wrote: "Miles has come up with something new. The form is free and from this freedom, a massive outgrowth of composition has emerged... it will probably be another 5 to 10 years before they really understand his creativity."

Teo Macero, producer of In a Silent Way, went on further in a conversation with biographer Ian Carr: "Whoever doesn't like what I did, 20 years from now they can go back and redo it."

Laswell did.

And Miles, still in the flow, is smiling.

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