Since the late ‘70s, Bill Laswell has relentlessly pursued the future with a stunning
range of musicians and thinkers. A short list includes Herbie Hancock, Laurie Anderson, Tony Williams, Mick Jagger, Sting, Carlos Santana, John Zorn, the Dalai Lama, Pharoah Sanders, Yoko Ono, John Lydon, Jah Wobble, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Karsh Kale, Afrika Bambaataa, Zakir Hussein, Shankar, Ustad Sultan Khan, George Clinton, Whitney Houston, William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Sly & Robbie and dozens more from the Americas, Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, India, and Japan. His willingness to take risks is unparalleled in the world of music―as is his ability to unite seemingly disparate voices. High among Laswell’s early influences was Miles Davis’ electric period, 1969 to 1974. The swirling textures of songs such as He Loved Him Madly, In a Silent Way and Shhh/Peaceful – suggested to Laswell ways in which sheets of atmospheric sound and texture, rather than traditional ideas of rhythm, melody and harmony, could play the dominant role in musical creation. In later years, Brian Eno developed a somewhat similar concept, which he termed ‘ambient’ music, and it’s no surprise that one of Eno’s early ambient albums - On Land - was a collaboration with Laswell. Davis opened other creative portals through which the young Laswell also passed. Albums such as On the Corner and Get Up With It suggested that under the right circumstances beats and prominent basslines could merge on equal footing with sounds from different cultures and genres. Respectful of Davis but having no desire to repeat the past, Laswell incorporated dub techniques, welcomed the jarring affects of randomness and created a heightened sense space to open the music still further. This mode of operation is audible in recordings of his own and in productions for others –
Tabla Beat Science, the four albums he produced for Herbie Hancock, the Sacred System albums, and the music of Ethiopian-born Gigi. In 1998 Laswell created Panthalassa, a mix-translation of Davis’ electric period, and turned young ears on to the music that previous generations had dismissed as an abomination. Finally, prime among Laswell’s inventive cross-fertilizations is his work with William Burroughs, The Road to the Western Lands, perhaps the only spoken word album that can bend the
intellect and move a dancefloor. If his compositions and productions are unique, Laswell’s own bass sound is equally so. While one can hear echoes of the finest r&b, funk and Jamaican bassists in his playing, Laswell is not simply a conglomeration of those who have come before him – his overall sound is ultimately the product of years of playing, live and in sessions, with the finest
musicians from around the world. Recent albums and collaborations include: Against Empire, Realm of Spells, Wadada
Leo Smith’s Najwa, and Dark Matter Halo’s Caravan to the Stars, and many, many others – see his site on Bandcamp. (Bio edited from full bio @ Silent Watcher).
Interview by David Kopacz (2020)
Photo by Toshiya Suzuki