Bill Laswell: Baselines Revisited

Bill Laswell has carved out one of the most critic-proof careers in music.

He’s probably best known as the producer of distinctive pop hits (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, PiL’s ‘Rise’, Sly & Robbie’s ‘Boops’) and rock/jazz legends in need of a makeover (Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss, Iggy Pop’s Instinct, Sonny Sharrock’s Ask The Ages, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Red Warrior).

He was the Miles Davis Estate’s go-to man for reimagining the trumpeter’s 1970s catalogue (Panthalassa) and also hugely important for bringing the P-funk sound into the ’80s and ’90s.

But Laswell is also a highly-original bassist in his own right and was a key figure of the late-’70s/early-’80s Downtown New York scene, featuring in bands like Massacre, Last Exit and Material (though he was pretty disparaging about the ‘scene’, once telling writer Bill Milkowski: ‘There never really was a Downtown community. All that means is that people don’t have enough money to get a better place to live…’).

His solo career has been interesting too, latterly showcasing a fusion of ambient, world and dub styles. But it’s his debut album Baselines (released 14th June 1983 on Elektra/Asylum) that really floats my boat. He plays a lot more bass than usual, fusing the soundworlds of Bootsy and Ornette Coleman and doing cool things like sticking objects under the strings or digging out the old Mu-Tron pedal for some memorably funky lines.

To these ears, Baselines is also the project that gave him the perfect vehicle for all his interests – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts-style found sounds, paranoid funk a la Talking Heads/King Crimson, Afrobeat, early hip-hop, avant-fusion, authentic jazz soloing and even post-punk white noise courtesy of future Chili Peppers/Marilyn Manson/Soundgarden producer Michael Beinhorn.

I wasn’t in New York in 1983 but this album would seem to be a perfect amalgam of all the hippest sh*t that was going down at the time. It’s always totally Laswell’s show, leading from the front on four/six/eight-string fretted and fretless basses and generally keeping the tracks short and sweet. Baselines is also beautifully recorded and produced – it’s easy on the ear despite some abrasive textures.

Shannon Jackson has never sounded better, supplying hilariously scattergun grooves and crunching fills. ‘Upright Man’ still inspires a kind of giggly menace, nearly 40 years on. Who supplies the scary spoken-word part? Whosampled doesn’t reveal, but the smart money’s on Fred Frith (who also plays some amusing violin on country-tinged curio ‘Lowlands’).

Baselines was certainly influential from a bass point of view too – you can bet Jah Wobble, Mick Karn, Stump and Human Chain had well-thumbed copies in their collections. But, to the best of my knowledge, Laswell has never returned to such a bass-led solo project since. A shame. He might have a future there…

Story Of A Song: David Sylvian’s Pop Song

Sylvo is not particularly known for his sense of humour, but there was surely an element of black comedy about the release of the ‘Pop Song’ 12-inch single.

It’s hard to read it as anything other than his ironic response to being asked by Virgin Records to come up with something a little more ‘commercial’ to promote the Weatherbox limited-edition box set (a collection that, in the event, didn’t even contain ‘Pop Song’!).

Imagine the ashen faces of the management at Virgin HQ when the needle hit the vinyl. ‘OK, there’s some kind of groove, but hang on – the synth bass is out of tune, the drums sound like Tupperware boxes and the piano has been flown in from a different song altogether…’

Yes, this was David’s ‘Jugband Blues’. And it was brilliant (the B-sides are well worth tracking down too). Cooked up alongside regular co-producer Steve Nye at Marcus Studios, Fulham, West London, during late summer 1989, ‘Pop Song’ was Sylvian’s bitter farewell to the decade, a vision of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music and Sunday supplements. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t your typical feelgood summer single…

Musically, it was Sylvian’s version of ‘pop’ and pretty amusing at that, with some gorgeous ‘found sounds’, deliciously tangential piano work from ECM regular John Taylor and underwater drums/queasy synth bass courtesy of Steve Jansen. Sylvian delivers a great vocal too, full of cool, jazzy phrasing (check out the ‘But the money goes/And the time goes too’ line).

I bought ‘Pop Song’ on the day it came out (30th October 1989), and my memory is that it created quite a stir amongst Sylvian fans. It registered briefly at #83 in the UK singles chart and then promptly disappeared. Was it ever actually played on the radio? One doubts it.

But if ‘Pop Song’ proved a strange detour for Sylvian, life was about to get even stranger – next stop was the Japan ‘reunion’ Rain Tree Crow, of which much more soon.

Ornette Coleman & Prime Time: Virgin Beauty 30 Years On

Who are the great pop and jazz melodicists? McCartney, Brian Wilson, Paddy McAloon, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, Becker & Fagen, Miles, Paul Desmond, Charlie Parker?

Ornette has to make that list too. He’s virtually incapable of playing a fatuous phrase, even when his accompanists seem to be scrambling eggs. Virgin Beauty, released 30 years ago, was and will now always remain a bit of an anomaly in his discography, a one-off album on CBS subsidiary Portrait Records (which also released Stanley Clarke’s If This Bass Could Only Talk) marketed as ‘Ornette does fusion’.

Which is a bit like asking Miles to do ‘pop’: i.e. you can market it any way you want, but it’s not gonna come out like that. Ornette’s version of fusion contains elements of country and western, space-invader electro, early hip-hop and, of course, glorious chaos.

I hadn’t heard Virgin Beauty for years but loved revisiting it this week. It’s on an old cassette sandwiched between Brian Eno’s Nerve Net and George Clinton’s Computer Games – perfect bedfellows.

First of all, I think it’s OK to find the album funny. Everything sounds a bit wonky; the Chick Corea Elektric Band it ain’t. Ornette’s beautiful alto is always just out of tune (though his trumpet playing is surprisingly in tune) and Chris Walker’s fretless-bass intonation is never perfect. Two rhythm guitarists (Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee) chatter away in different keys and Ornette’s son Denardo programs some drum machines, hits some acoustic drums, some electric drums and, frequently, a jazz ride cymbal. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia drops in for a few enjoyably ramshackle guitar solos.

It’s also almost bass-less. It’s one of the first albums I’ve listened to in the past few years when I’ve had to turn the bass UP. Which is a good thing, because Al MacDowell’s playing is sometimes fairly astonishing. He even throws in a few quotes from ‘Yakety Sax’.

Virgin Beauty was the natural peak for Ornette’s Prime Time band but a bit of a cul-de-sac career-wise. It would be seven long years before his next solo studio album Tone Dialling. The record companies never got their ‘fusion’ record – thankfully.

Seismic Grooves: Ronald Shannon Jackson’s ‘Behind Plastic Faces’

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Shannon Jackson in 2012

Musicians and writers have long puzzled over a definition of Harmolodics, the musical system invented by Ornette Coleman. The man himself was famously coy on the subject, his brief liner note on the back of the Dancing In Your Head LP possibly the nearest he ever got to an outright definition: ‘Rhythms, harmonics and tempos are all equal in relationship’. 

Of all the Ornette collaborators who developed their own take on Harmolodics, Ronald Shannon Jackson, who died in October 2013, probably came up with the most accessible version. He had played with avant-garde pioneers Albert Ayler, Ornette, James Blood Ulmer and Cecil Taylor in the 1970s, but developed into a fine bandleader/composer in the ’80s, fronting a red-hot band featuring guitarist Vernon Reid (Living Colour), bassist Melvin Gibbs (Rollins Band), trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist Zane Massey. (Shannon’s version of Harmolodics was so successful it possibly even influenced Ornette’s Virgin Beauty.)

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My dad used to get sent a lot of music in his capacity as a programme consultant for Channel 4 TV’s music arm back in the mid-1980s. A surprising amount of it would come in home-compiled cassette format. One such tape was simply called ‘Dance Music’ – I’ve still got it somewhere.

Most of the music on it was fairly standard Brazilian and Blue Note stuff but one track stood out a mile and became somewhat of an obsession for my brother and I: Shannon’s ‘Behind Plastic Faces’, from the 1985 album Decode Yourself. It was the beginning of my love affair with his music and drumming.

He lays down one of his patented military grooves on Simmons drums underneath slithering fretless bass, chattering Reid guitar and Onaje Allan Gumbs’ summery keyboards. But then the track suddenly changes gear halfway through and turns into a Afro-Funk/No-Wave rave-up, with Shannon moving over to the acoustic drums and Eric Person rhapsodising on alto sax.

The track and attendant album were recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York and produced by Bill Laswell. Decode Yourself seems very difficult to find these days, like many of Shannon’s numerous other ’80s albums.

Shannon Jackson was born and brought up in Forth Worth, Texas, just like Ornette. His father’s jukebox introduced him to BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck, but there were many other influences in the mix too, as he told writer Gary Giddins in 1985: ‘You’d wake up and hear hillbilly music on the radio. In school, we’d play (Wagner’s) “Lohengin”, at night we’d hear Bo Diddley or Bobby “Blue” Bland. On Sunday, we’d hear gospel. It was a total black community, and music wasn’t categorised as jazz or pop – nobody told you you weren’t supposed to like something.’