Saturday, January 14, 2012
Heavy Metal Be-Bop #6: Bill Laswell
I'm happy to report that Heavy Metal Be-Bop, my jazz/metal interview series, has returned from a little hiatus. The sixth installment, a Q&A with Bill Laswell, is live in abridged form at Invisible Oranges (metal is the focus here, of course) and in a greatly lengthened director's cut at the series's online home, heavymetalbebop.com. (HMB #7 is already in the can, though no promises re: how soon I'll be able to post it.)
As I mention in the intro to the Q&A, which you'll find at the links above, it's hard to discuss the jazz/metal connection without bringing up Bill Laswell; along with John Zorn, he's an elephant in the room. You'll find some Laswell talk—specifically, comments on Last Exit, the polarizing ’80s improv quartet he worked in with Peter Brötzmann, Sonny Sharrock and Ronald Shannon Jackson—in two prior HMB installments; check out Melvin Gibbs's thoughts here and Craig Taborn's here.
I'm not sure when I first heard of Bill Laswell. I remember that my teenage interest in Mick Harris's idiosyncratic dub-metal project Scorn (I still love the Evanescence LP) led me to the Laswell/Harris collaboration Equations of Eternity, and that a review in the sadly departed metal rag Rip tipped me off to Painkiller, Harris and Laswell's avant-grindcore trio with John Zorn.
As I got more into both jazz and metal though, I developed something of a distaste for Laswell. I remember being immensely excited when I first learned of the existence of 1997's The Last Wave, a trio record with Laswell, Derek Bailey and Tony Williams (!) under the collective name Arcana, and of Last Exit itself. Being a Bailey and Williams nut, as well as a Sharrock obsessive, it seemed that I couldn't go wrong with this material (not to mention Material, a Laswell project that featured guest turns from Sharrock and a bunch of other free-jazz heroes set against a backdrop of off-puttingly synthetic—for me, at least—’80s art-dance). But in the case of The Last Wave, the strange, boomy production, and in the case of Last Exit, a funk-oriented bass presence that struck me as a sore thumb, kept me on the outside. Records like these were classic examples of "On paper, this looks tailor-made for me, but I just can't get with it in the flesh."
Over time, though, I realized that I couldn't stay away. I wasn't going to let my aesthetic quibbles keep me from savoring some of Tony Williams's final recordings (the drummer died during the making of the second Arcana record, Arc of the Testimony), or an extended series of exchanges between musical heroes of mine such as Brötzmann and Sharrock. The more I sat with the Laswell discography (or at least the wings of it that intrigued me most), the more it impressed me. What I realized was that, like John Zorn, another artist whose own work I have mixed feelings about but whose curatorial/community-forging instincts I admire greatly, Laswell's greatest achievement has been his bridge-building, his willingness to forge connections between artists who never would've found each other (note Herbie Hancock and Akira Sakata's names on that Last Exit LP jacket above), or at least probably wouldn't have thought to document their meeting on record: Bailey and Williams, say, or Keiji Haino and Rashied Ali (who appeared with Laswell in a collective called Purple Trap), or Sharrock, Brötzmann and Shannon Jackson, who seem like soulmates after the fact but who, to my knowledge, hadn't played together before Laswell convened them. The Praxis project is another example; I'm not in love with the later material (oriented around Buckethead and Brain), but it warms my heart to read the personnel list for 1993's Sacrifist, which includes Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell alongside the dudes from Blind Idiot God. Laswell's work as an intergenre unifier is less well-documented than Zorn's (in founding Tzadik, Zorn created an invaluable umbrella entity that Laswell never managed to maintain for an extended period), but it's equally undeniable. I'm thrilled that these records exist.
And to branch out briefly into Laswell's work as a producer, the musical world owes him a great debt for helping to resurrect the career of Sonny Sharrock. Guitar and Ask the Ages are among my most treasured records, period, the two best presentations of Sharrock's heartrending magic. (Seize the Rainbow, a Laswell co-production, is an idiosyncratic keeper as well.)
Part of the fun of the Heavy Metal Be-Bop series has been interrogating some of my old aesthetic prejudices. To ignore Laswell outright would a major self-disservice. Just as I don't love all of his records, I don't agree with everything he has to say in the conversation linked above (for one, his estimation of Dave Lombardo's limited musical scope seemed overly dismissive, and even disrespectful), but I'm grateful to have had the chance to sit down with him and discuss this strange musical nexus. Tony Williams, whom Laswell knew well and worked with often, acted as a fulcrum for the conversation, and I think we ventured into a fair amount of underexplored territory re: Williams's ambitions and aesthetic goals as a rock-oriented player.
I hope you enjoy the interview. I'd like to sincerely thank Mr. Laswell for taking the time to meet with me.