Before & After: Bill Laswell

In this no-holds-barred listening session, the legendary bassist and producer comments on tracks featuring Esperanza Spalding, Michael Henderson, Bootsy Collins, Stanley Clarke and others

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Bill Laswell (c/o Cuneiform)

Many musicians have worked in a wide range of genres, but few have collaborated with the top names in each of those styles like Bill Laswell has. On bass, or as a producer, he’s made music with some of the most important figures in rock (Iggy Pop, Ramones), reggae (Sly and Robbie, Lee “Scratch” Perry), world music (Manu Dibango, Hassan Hakmoun), funk (Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell), the Downtown scene (John Zorn, Fred Frith), jazz (Herbie Hancock) and avant-garde jazz (Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Sharrock). Regardless of place, he’s always in good company.

At a Manhattan restaurant in mid-January, the reserved but opinionated artist, 63, shared his favorite prog bands, talked about the influence of Miles bassist Michael Henderson, discussed the group he almost had with Jeff Beck and Tony Williams, and revealed that there might be some music on the way from himself and Ornette Coleman.

  1. Miles Davis
    “One and One” (On the Corner, Columbia). Davis, trumpet; David Creamer, guitar; Collin Walcott, electric sitar; Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Harold “Ivory” Williams, keyboards; Michael Henderson, bass; Jack DeJohnette, Al Foster, Billy Hart, drums; Badal Roy, tabla. Recorded in 1972.

BEFORE: If you focus on the bass, I would say Michael Henderson.

So this is “One and One,” from On the Corner. And I purposefully wanted to play this for you because your 1998 Miles remix project, Panthalassa, leans heavily on the Michael Henderson stuff. I wanted to hear your thoughts about Henderson, and about bass playing in this kind of music.

Michael is playing like a drummer—kind of like a harmonic drummer. And supplying that as part of the rhythm section. To me it’s always felt very African. But he didn’t know anything about that; I worked with him, you know.

What was it like working with Michael?

Well, he was kind of gone by that time. He’s lost that thread. But he’s very conscious of pulse, and if you hear this, it’s very conscious of being kind of a drummer.

This sounds almost like something you would play.

Yeah, I would do that. But I got it from him.

What makes this era of electric Miles different from, say, other kinds of quote-unquote fusion?

It’s a repetition, and that to me equates it with African music and Indian music. What came later was hip-hop; it bypassed the whole jazz thing. I relate to it today.

It’s this amazing middle point where it’s got the rhythm of funk but the exploratory nature of jazz. It’s a real compromise, in a good way, where it’s not too much of either one; it’s just perfect.

And there’s a tremendous amount of tension, but it’s controlled tension. And they did that without really knowing the boundaries, or where they were actually supposed to go. It’s very healthy.

  1. Esperanza Spalding
    “Funk the Fear” (Emily’s D+Evolution, Concord). Spalding, bass, vocals; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Justin Tyson, drums; Celeste Butler, Kimberly L. Cook-Ratliff, Fred Martin, Katriz Trinidad, background vocals. Released in 2016.

BEFORE: It’s like a prog bassist. I don’t know.

AFTER: Do you have any thoughts on the music or the bass playing?

Uh, yeah—pointless. It’s happened in the ’70s.

This kind of music?

Yeah. I didn’t know that’s what she sounded like.

This is one of her most recent things.

It’s like Joni Mitchell with Hatfield and the North [laughs].

Any comments about the bass playing?

It’s busy and she’s playing music. I don’t know.

You can find her in more conventional jazz situations as well, playing upright. Did you ever get into prog?

Yeah, but earlier. But not like this.

What kind of prog stuff were you into?

Magma, Gong, Hatfield and the North. A lot of stuff. Henry Cow.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring the cuts played for Bill Laswell in this Before & After session:

  1. Stanley Clarke
    “Hello Jeff” (Journey to Love, Nemperor). Clarke, bass, organ; Jeff Beck, guitar; Lenny White, drums. Released in 1975.

BEFORE: I have no idea. Is it Jeff Beck?

[laughs] That’s great. It’s Jeff Beck playing guitar. Something about this bass playing made me think of you, in a good way.

Is that the girl?

The one we just listened to?

No, Tal [Wilkenfeld].

It’s not Tal.

Stanley Clarke?

AFTER: I don’t like these fusion formats. But I liked Stanley’s second album [1974’s Stanley Clarke], with Tony Williams, Bill Connors and Jan Hammer. I thought that was an interesting record. And from there he moved on and he worked with Jeff Beck.

What do you think about Stanley as a bass player?

Not interested. He’s just, “Blucka-blucka-blucka-blucka.” It’s like clicking and sounds and stuff. I did also like his first solo record [1973’s Children of Forever], where he played acoustic a little bit.

Did you ever get into Jeff Beck, or work with him?

I worked with him. We worked on [Mick Jagger’s solo debut, 1985’s She’s the Boss]. And then we had an idea to make a band with Tony Williams.

The three of you?

Yeah, but he wanted to put this fusion keyboard guy in it, and I didn’t want the keyboard, and we kinda fell out about that. And then Tony went to London and actually played with them, and I told Tony, “I’m a day late. Don’t play with him. Wait till I get there.” And they played, and Jeff didn’t get it. So that was that.

  1. Miroslav Vitous
    “New York City” (Magical Shepherd, Warner Bros.). Vitous, bass, guitar, Minimoog; Herbie Hancock, Fender Rhodes, clavinet, ARP Odyssey, Solina String Ensemble; James Gadson, drums; Airto Moreira, percussion; Cheryl Grainger, Onike, vocals. Released in 1976.

BEFORE: Yeah, I’m not sure. It sounds generic. I gotta wait till I hear something else.

It’s the bassist’s song, but do you recognize the keyboards as well?

It’s very familiar, but I just don’t know.

AFTER: I would have never known that. I wouldn’t have recognized Miroslav.

I thought you might be interested in his bass playing, or in talking about working with Herbie.

We never did anything like this [laughs]. I like Miroslav, but I wouldn’t recognize him.

What do you like about him?

In the beginning he had the nice feel and the good tone; you know, choice of notes. But that was early.

You’re not so into this?

Oh, no, that’s crap [laughs].

What about Herbie’s keyboard playing, on this or anything?

Well, Herbie’s the master of crap. He can pull it all out. He can take you right back to ’72 or 3 or 1. I would’ve never known that was Miroslav. That could be the soundtrack for a porn film in Thailand.

[laughs] Um, alright, so we won’t listen to the end of that one. We’ll move on. I thought you might have been interested in the bass playing.

Not so much. But I like Miroslav.

In what context did you used to listen to him?

In the beginning. He was using the upright, and the bow, and not just the electric. He did some great things.

  1. Ornette Coleman
    “Biosphere” (Sound Museum: Three Women, Harmolodic/Verve). Coleman, alto saxophone; Geri Allen, piano; Charnett Moffett, bass; Denardo Coleman, drums. Recorded in 1996.

BEFORE: Ornette?

Yeah.

Charlie Haden?

No.

It’s an upright, though. Wow. The drumming is hard to tell. Ed Blackwell? [Charles] Moffett? Not Denardo.

It’s Denardo.

Al MacDowell?

No. I’ll tell you. Well, a Moffett is on bass.

That’s Charnett?

AFTER: What do you think about Charnett as a bass player?

I think he’s great.

What do you like about him?

Here I couldn’t tell so much, but normally he has a warm sound and he can sustain a feel, and at the same time he can improvise. When we did the record with Elvin [Jones] and Sonny Sharrock [1991’s Ask the Ages], I was thinking of Reggie Workman, ’cause he knew all those guys. And we were in Berlin, I remember, and [Ronald] Shannon Jackson came and I said, “Me and Sonny are gonna do this record with Pharoah [Sanders] and Elvin. And we’re thinking about Reggie.” And he said, “No—why don’t you get Charnett Moffett? He listens.” So it was Shannon’s idea. And when we got back, I called Charnett. It was a good idea.

Did you ever work with Ornette?

Yeah, he was a friend, you know, from a long time [ago]. I played a lot with him. I have a lot of tapes playing with him.

Just private stuff?

Yeah.

So there are no available recordings of you and Ornette?

No, but there will be, ’cause I have a lot of stuff.

Cool. What kind of stuff would you do together?

Duets, and then we had one with [percussionist] Trilok Gurtu. But I have a lot, like four or five hours.

Wow. So some of it is just bass and sax?

Yeah. I’ll put that out, at some point.

What was it like playing with Ornette?

It’s like you’re listening to a guy telling a story, and you’re taking notes.

  1. The J.B.’s
    “The Grunt (Parts 1 & 2)” (Food for Thought, People). Clayton “Chicken” Gunnels, Darryl “Hasaan” Jamison, trumpet; Robert McCullough, tenor saxophone; Phelps “Catfish” Collins, guitar; Bobby Byrd, piano; Bootsy Collins, bass; Frankie Waddy, drums. Recorded in 1970.

AFTER: What was it like working with Bootsy?

Oh, I worked with him for many years. Still in touch with him.
It’s always fun.

What do you like about his bass playing?

It’s original. He doesn’t play basslines so much; he plays around them. You can have [another] bassline and he can play around it.

Interesting.

He plays guitar nice, too, rhythm guitar. Only rhythm. And he tries to play drums a little bit.

  1. Sly & Robbie
    “Crazy Baldhead” (Riddim: The Best of Sly & Robbie in Dub, 1978 to 1985, Trojan). Robbie Shakespeare, bass; Sly Dunbar, drums; various other instrumentalists. Recorded in 1983.

BEFORE: It’s … Sly and Robbie?

AFTER: What separates [Robbie] from the other dub bass players?

He pulls back, and lays back. And he tends to play more melodic
to the vocal. Family Man, [Aston Barrett, bassist for] Bob Marley,
really laidback, plays to the vocal. Flabba Holt, a little less; he’s rushing more to the rhythm section. But Robbie is always easy to tell.

You could tell Sly right away. What are his trademarks?

These days it’s the tom fill, and then kick, snare, hi-hat. The way he hits it. But also Sly, today, has a bad leg. His hi-hat is out, so he’s playing these toms for rhythm. So it sounds like krautrock, kind of, playing reggae. He sits down really low. When he played like that, nobody else ever played like that. On a big stage with volume, that sound is undeniable. But he’s having a little trouble.

Read Brad Farberman’s conversation with Bill Laswell from the April 2015 issue of JazzTimes.