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Bill Laswell: Ambient Warlord

By Benson Knickerbocker

Within the pages of this week’s issue, the name Bill Laswell has come out in two instances. The famed New York City producer helped craft albums during the 1980s for drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and keyboardist Herbie Hancock. In both cases, Laswell incorporated a keyboard laden industrial-rock vibe into each musicians pre-existing style. Through Laswell, both Jackson and Hancock took their music down new musical pathways yet experienced by any musician anywhere. It was funky; it was hard-core; it was melodic; it was chaotic; it looked towards the future through the use of technology; it had strong ties to past through the incorporation of African rhythms. The music was new to the ears yet it had universal undertones. And it all had to do with Laswell.

Laswell’s involvement with Jackson and Hancock is just the tip of his creative iceberg. In 1980, he collaborated with French progressive musician Daevid Allen to create New York Gong, which combined Allen’s glissando guitar and fantasy-like lyrics with the funk-punk of Laswell’s own band, Material. This ever-revolving band blended punk, jazz and hip-hop and over the years has featured such diverse musicians as Fred Frith, Sonny Sharrock, Henry Threadgill and Olu Daru. In 1985, he teamed with ex-Sex Pistol John Lydon for the popular band, Public Image Limited. This band also featured guitarist Steve Vai and drummer Ginger Baker. In 1986, Laswell joined up with guitarist Sonny Sharrock, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and saxophonist Peter Brotzman to play free-jazz/hard rock music in the band Last Exit. Throughout the 1990s, he recorded with a band called Praxis with funksters like Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell as well guitar madman, Buckethead. Through his own label, Axiom, Laswell has recorded "Gnawa Trance Music", "North African pre-psychedelic mind explorations" and "Anarchic, futuristic fusions of hardcore, funk, industrial, and other "alternative" genres". In recant years, his work had had him producing inventive remixes of both Bob Marley and Miles Davis.

One of Laswell’s ongoing side projects have been involved creating instrumental groove pieces and his latest installment is Dub Chamber 3 (ROIR, 2000). Besides his numerous production/remixes credits, Laswell is also the master of bass, keyboard and beat box which he employs on this album for four ambient pieces that touch upon progressive rock, trip-hop, jazz and funk. Laswell is joined by longtime collaborators, guitarist Nicky Skopelitis and bassist Jah Wobble as well as noted jazz pianist Craig Taborn, drummer Karsh Kale and trumpeter special effecter Nils Petter Molvaer. The music on Dub Chamber is yet another installment in Laswell’s continuous quest for creating the ambient groove. In comparison to the harder lines that he created with Hancock, Jackson, Praxis and Material, Dub Chamber 3’s music is entrancing and ethereal. It is great headphone music that is not caught on a single groove. Each of the four songs is its own entities with plenty of tempo, ambience and instrumentation switches. Great late night listening for those who wish to explore the outer reaches of sonority.

Another present day Laswell project is titled Emerald Aether: Shape Shifting (Shanachie Records, 2000). This release has Laswell taking Irish tunes by musicians like Solas, Jerry O’ Sullivan, Matt Molloy and Karan Casey. From acoustic guitar/flute interludes like "We Dreamed our Dreams" and "Wendel’s Wedding" to traditional Irish chanteusing like "The Labouring Man’s Daughter", the album brings forth the spirit of the Irish isles. On songs like "The Gray Selchie" and "Dark Green", Laswell’s influence is undeniably felt as he puts his patented ominous touches on the tunes.