Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Laswell, Bill (William)

Bassist and producer Bill Laswell has always kept his ears and imagination open. His riffs heard around the world on Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" led to work with artists as varied as Fela Kuti, Yoko Ono, Archie Shepp, Whitney Houston and Peter Brotzmann.

Bill Laswell

Wherever he goes, Laswell keeps music fresh by challenging genres and bringing together musicians from all walks of life. Refusing to be pigeonholed, he has worked as a performer and producer with artists from jazz, rock, experimental and electronic music, free jazz, hip-hop, New Wave, world music and reggae.

Bill Laswell was born on February 14, 1950 in Salem, Illinois where he spent his early years. His father was a businessman in the oil industry, who died when the boy was still young. Startled by the loss, the family moved to Albion, Michigan, a small factory factory town two hours west of Detroit in 1958, and settled a mainly African-American neighborhood.

As a young boy, Laswell received musical training in school, where he played the baritone saxophone and drums. Interested in forming bands, Bill found that bass players were in high demand, and so picked up the instrument. By the age of thirteen, he was performing locally.

By age fifteen, Laswell was performing with local rhythm and blues groups, and joined them on tours of Michigan as well as the South and lower Midwest. During this time, the musical climate around Detroit included everything from hard rockers like the MC5 and Iggy Pop to the soul sounds of Motown and the infectious grooves of Funkadelic. This musical concoction had a strong effect on the young man and kept his ears open to new music. He soon became interested in the music of saxophonists John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Wayne Shorter, as well as singer James Brown and guitarist Jimi Hendrix.

In the 1970s, Laswell began paying attention to experimental European bands such as Henry Cow, Gong, and Magma. In 1977, Laswell moved to New York City in hopes of joining its eclectic music scene. During this time, downtown New York was a musical melting pot, where jazz, hip-hop and rock artists mingled with experimental classical composers and others from the so-called “Downtown” scene, which included artists and groups such as John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Television, DNA and James Chance and the Contortions.

Soon after moving to New York, Laswell met Michael Beinhorn, who was a synthesizer and electronic musician whose work was inspired by composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1978, the two men formed “The Zu Band,” which also featured guitarist Cliff Culteri and drummer Fred Maher. The group was known for their long performances and unique sound designs. The group would accompany a United States tour with Gong in 1979.

Afterward, Laswell, Beinhorn and Maher formed the group “Material,” initially as a backup group for Gong singer Daevid Allen in 1979. The group did a fair amount of recording during this time releasing Temporary Music in 1979, Memory Serves in 1981 and One Down in 1982. The group’s music consisted of rock styles, electronic experimentation and improvisation.

Material had a large group of friends that would perform with them including saxophonists Archie Shepp and Henry Threadgill, guitarists Fred Frith and Sonny Sharrock and even singer Whitney Houston, whom recorded with the group on One Down.

Throughout this time, Laswell’s innovations were beginning to catch the ears of several musicians, including pianist Herbie Hancock. Bill and Herbie soon collaborated on the song “Rockit,” which would eventually sell one and a half million copies. The song’s mix of synthesizers, dance beats and record scratching opened the public to electronic music. The music video for the song was in heavy rotation on MTV and spawned a whole new generation of fans for Herbie. The song was featured on the album Future Shock, which won a Grammy Award in 1984 for “Best Rhythm And Blues Instrumental Performance.”

With the success of “Rockit,” Laswell began to get offers from several popular artists and bands to produce and perform. Laswell soon began working on singer Mick Jagger’s album She’s The Boss, singer Yoko Ono’s Starpeace, performance artist Laurie Anderson’s Mr. Heartbreak and rock band Public Image Ltd’s Album.

A true iconoclast, Laswell refused to reveal what musicians were on Album, stating that he wished critics would judge the music, not the musicians that were associated with it. The album had several guest musicians including drummers Ginger Baker and Tony Williams.

In 1984, Laswell released the album Baselines, his first to be released under his name. On “Activate,” Laswell sets up the song with an arsenal of tape loops, synthesized motifs and electronic sounds to create a jarring sound collage. His bass playing ranges from short phrases to a solo towards the end, which comes as a brief moment between ensuing chaos. The subsequent result is a patchwork of electric and acoustic sounds that permeates one’s perception of sound.

By the mid 1980s, Laswell’s production work had been met with both acclaim and controversy. In 1985, he produced the album Army Arrangement for singer Fela Kuti. Fela was angered that Laswell replaced several of his saxophone solos with solos by keyboardist Bernie Worrell. Laswell would later defend himself by saying that Kuti's saxophone playing was horrible, and the replacements were an absolute necessity.

Laswell continued to perform in experimental bands throughout the 1980s including his work with “Massacre” and the “Golden Palominos” as well as “Curlew” with cellist Tom Cora, guitarist Nicky Skopelitis and saxophonist George Cartwright. In 1986, Laswell formed the group “Last Exit” with guitarist Sonny Sharrock, saxophonist Peter Brotzmann and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. The group returned Sharrock to the jazz public and was especially loved by jazz fans overseas.

The same year, the group released the album “Köln.” On “Taking A Beating,” Brotzmann creates such a fury that his saxophone appears to distort, causing an enthusiastic domino effect amongst the group. Laswell produces short and often fast lines that offer brief harmonic suggestions under Brotzmann’s scorching timbre. Sharrock towards the end of the song tries to emulate the saxophone’s resonance allowing Laswell to join in the completely liberated conclusion of the song.

Around this time, Laswell began to produce “world music” for Celluloid Records. He began to take modern technology and combine it with Middle Eastern and African sounds. Producing music by the group Toure Kunda and saxophonist Manu Dibango, this period marked an imaginative effort on Laswell’s part.

In 1988, Laswell released the album Hear No Evil. On “Lost Roads,” Laswell attempts to juxtapose Eastern musical practices with European concepts of tonality to create an organic, modern fusion of genres. Bill allows tabla player Zakir Hussain to take center stage with his tranquil performance, and reinforces the ensemble by doubling the melody that being played by the guitar and doing so only sparingly.

When Laswell’s relationship with Celluloid ended in 1989, he began his own record lable, Axiom Records. Started as a subsidiary of Island Records, he maintains the label as a platform for impulsive collaboration and creative control. Releases from the label include world music musician Simon Shaheen, jazz musicians Henry Threadgill and Ronald Shannon and Gambian musicians Mandinka and Fulani.

By the early 1990s, Laswell continued to perform with Material, though without Beinhorn. In 1991, he released Third Power, which included singer Shabba Ranks, the Jungle Brothers, Sly And Robbie and trombonist Fred Wesley. In 1992, Laswell formed the group “Praxis,” which featured Worrell, guitarist Buckethead,bassist Bootsy Collins, drummer Brain and AF Next Man Flip on turntables. The group released Transmutation (Mutatis Mutantis) the same year and Sacrifist in 1994.

By 1993, Laswell started producing work out of his Greenpoint studio in Brooklyn. He began to produce a new series of recordings on the Black Arc label. Musicians included on this series include Collins, drummer Buddy Miles, guitarist Michael Hampton and rapper Melle Mel. In 1994, he released Hallucination Engine, which featured Worrell, Shankar, beat poet William Burroughs and singer Liu Sola.

In the 1998, Laswell released the album Panthalassa. The album was a remix of several songs by trumpeter Miles Davis during his electric period from 1969 to1974. In the late 1990s, Bill began to see that his studio was turning into more of a social spot than an actual studio, and decided to move it to West Orange, New Jersey. With the new location Bill renamed the studio “Orange Music.”

In 1999, Laswell founded the Innerythmic label, though it remained dormant until 2001 where it began to release albums by guitarist James Blood Ulmer, singer Shin Terai, and several others. In 2001, he began to produce music for singer Gigi’s debut record. The two later married and she has become a staple on several of Laswell’s productions.

In 2004, Laswell signed a recording contract with Sanctuary Records. As part of the deal, Laswell was able to establish a new record label, Nagual. Sanctuary Records owned the back catalog of Trojan records, an influential reggae label, which enabled Laswell the opportunity to remix several albums in their catalog. Part of the remix collection included Dub Massive: Chapter One And Chapter Two in May of 2005.

In 2008, Laswell released the album Lodge on the Karl Wallinger label. Still incredibly active, he remains one of the few musicians who is utterly fearless when he crosses borders.

Select Discography

As Bill Laswell

Baselines (1982)

Hear No Evil (1988)

Silent Recoil (1995)

Oscillations (1996)

City of Light (1997)

Jazzonia (1998)

Invisible Design (1999)

Permutation (2000)

Filmtracks (2001)

Aftermathematics (2004)

The Only Way To Go Is Down (2006)

Lodge (2008)

With Material

Temporary Music (1979)

Memory Serves (1981)

One Down (1982)

Seven Souls (1989)

The Third Power (1991)

Hallucination Engine (1993)

Contributor: Eric Wendell