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/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…
Whitney is seldom mentioned in the list of ’80s biggies (Prince, Bruce, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Jacko, Hall & Oates etc.) – strange considering her 1985 debut album sold 22 million copies, her second 25 million and she’s still the only artist in history to have seven consecutive US number one singles (one more than The Beatles).
Her death in 2012 at the age of just 48 followed decades of worldwide success but also attendant tabloid speculation and a multitude of legal problems (her father John sued her for $100 million in 2002).
Her marriage to R’n’B ‘badboy’ Bobby Brown was endlessly analysed, as was her close friendship with Robyn Sampson.
Nick Broomfield’s ‘Can I Be Me?’ (Rudi Dolezal gets a co-director credit for the inclusion of his scintillating 1999 concert/backstage footage) is the first Whitney doc out of the blocks – another ‘authorised’ film is apparently on the way shortly – and it’s a significant change of style for Broomfield.
He dials down the quirkiness, resists on-screen cameos and cranks up the gravitas, seeming far more affected by Whitney’s demise than he was by the deaths of Biggie, Tupac, Kurt Cobain or Aileen Wuornos.
There are no obvious laughs in this one and it’s by far his most commercial film, possibly reflecting the influence of Asif Kapadia’s similarly-themed ‘Amy’.
But other things haven’t changed – Broomfield’s impressive range of interviewees (including Whitney’s brothers, friends, bodyguard, hair stylist, drug counselor, musical director and backing singers) are shown in unflattering close-up, but all speak with sometimes breathtaking candour.
The only notable no-shows are Bobby Brown and best friend Robyn Crawford, for reasons which become abundantly clear.
We get a strong sense of Whitney’s childhood in Newark, New Jersey – ‘the hood’ – when ‘Nippy’ was a lovable, caring, somewhat mischievous kid brought up singing gospel in church and mucking around with her brothers.
Inheriting a formidable set of pipes from her mum Cissy Houston, legendary impressario Clive Davis signed Nippy as a charming, cheeky 20-year-old and demanded a debut album that would appeal to White America; as an Arista A&R man says on camera, ‘He DIDN’T want George Clinton music.’
Broomfield analyses this as the crux of the problem, in the sense that Whitney achieved her huge early success without ever referencing the sort of music she was passionate about.
The title of the film comes from her catchphrase developed when touring in the late ’90s when she would insist on bringing in elements of gospel, jazz and R’n’B (presumably against the wishes of her record company).
Broomfield doesn’t fudge the drug issue, and finds plenty of self-criticism from Whitney as well as corroboration from various sources. Bobby Brown comes across as somewhat of a loose cannon but essentially harmless.
Despite his posturing, the intimate backstage footage demonstrates that he certainly loved Whitney and vice versa. Their Ike and Tina ‘abuse’ skits are amusing, though may offend some.
More troubling was Brown’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, who allegedly was having an affair with Whitney throughout much of her career.
Broomfield hasn’t been able to secure the rights to any of Houston’s recorded catalogue, so the film arguably relies too much on Nick Laird-Clowes’ mournful, somewhat clichéd original score.
But Rudi Dolezal’s concert footage is evocative and moving. Love or hate ‘I Will Always Love You’, it’s hard not to be affected by Houston’s mesmerising live performance during a 1999 gig in Germany, one of many great musical moments in the film.
Michael Baker’s yin/yang bass-drum skin from that 1999 tour says it all – ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ is finally another desperately sad music-biz story. But it’s well worth catching even if it (understandably) lacks the anarchic zeal of Broomfield’s best work.
One interviewee who might have been worth tracking down is Bill Laswell, who to the best of my knowledge was the first producer to tap into Whitney’s potential when he helmed this early gem, recorded when she was just 19 years old.
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.)
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 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 on physical formats these days, like many of Shannon’s numerous other ’80s albums, but thankfully it is on streaming platforms.
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.’
Though he had recorded the very successful You’re Under Arrest and was in some of his best trumpet lip of the ’80s, his relationship with Columbia Records was at an all-time low.
For one, the label’s other star trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was at his peak of popularity, and, as far as Miles was concerned, Columbia boss Dr George Butler only had eyes for Wynton.
Then Miles felt that Columbia had procrastinated over releasing his cover of the Cyndi Lauper song ‘Time After Time‘ as a single. At the time, with typical mordant humour, Miles said, ‘He (George Butler) ignored it because he’s so busy with Wynton Marsalis. He heard us do it at the Montreux Jazz Festival last year and said “We gotta do it! We gotta do it!” I said, “George, I told you man. We already did it!” And he still didn’t release it…’
And the final nail in the coffin seemed to be Columbia’s unwillingness to put any financial clout behind Miles’s stunning collaboration with Danish trumpeter/composer Palle Mikkelborg, Aura, recorded at the beginning of 1985. For unknown reasons, the music didn’t see the light of day until 1989.
Again, in contemporary interviews, Miles rounded up the usual suspects: ‘I wanted $1400 for a digital remix and Columbia wouldn’t pay it. And then George Butler calls me up. He says to me, “Why don’t you call Wynton?” I say, “Why?” He says, “Cos it’s his birthday!” That’s why I left Columbia.’
Later reports had Miles carrying out Butler’s request, barking ‘Happy Birthday!’ to Marsalis and then slamming down the phone.
Miles officially became a Warner Bros. artist in autumn 1985. House producer Tommy LiPuma was delighted to get him – but what to do with him? Miles first took his touring band into the studio and embarked on a kind of You’re Under Arrest part two, covering tunes by Mr Mister, Nik Kershaw and Maze.
But this project was quickly abandoned, and Miles contacted various musicians including Prince (who supplied the rather humdrum ‘Can I Play With U’, later replaced by Marcus Miller’s ‘Full Nelson’), George Duke, Bill Laswell, Paul Buckmaster and Toto’s Steve Porcaro. He was desperate for new music and a new direction.
But he finally settled on an old contact, Randy Hall, the young Chicago multi-instrumentalist who had worked on his comeback album The Man With The Horn back in 1981.
Around a dozen tracks were completed between October and December 1985 in what was now known as the Rubber Band project. However, again for unknown reasons, the project was shelved, LiPuma quoted as saying, ‘I didn’t hear anything. To me, it didn’t sound like nothing was going on.’
Other collaborators were quickly suggested and then discarded including keyboardists Lyle Mays and Thomas Dolby. So Miles went back to George Duke. Their paths had crossed many times over the years, particularly when Duke was playing keyboards with Cannonball Adderley in the early ’70s.
As Duke remembers, ‘When Miles called, I initially thought it was a prank, one of my friends impersonating him. So I didn’t do anything, and a week later he called again. I said, “Who is this?” and he started swearing at me, “Mother****er, write me a song!”‘
It seems finally that George Duke’s demo of ‘Backyard Ritual‘ was deemed a direction worth pursuing by Miles and LiPuma. A strong, drum-heavy track put together by Duke using a Synclavier digital sampler with a simple but memorable main motif, he never intended it to be used as a final version, highlighted by the rather cheesy sampled alto sax solo.
But Miles eventually used almost the whole demo for Tutu, embellishing it only with some slithering percussion by Steve Reid and Paulinho Da Costa and of course his own pristine trumpet playing.
Miles’s take on it was that he respected a quality arrangement, demo or not: ‘A guy like George Duke, he writes a composition, it’s all there. All you have to do is play on it and respect that man’s composition’, he told writer and musician Ben Sidran.
And Duke revealed that he had even played a ‘sampled’ trumpet solo on the original demo, which tickled Miles. Duke: ‘He said to me, “You think that’s the way I play trumpet?” And I said, “That’s the way it sounds to me!”‘
At the beginning of 1986, Marcus Miller phoned Tommy LiPuma out of the blue. The bassist and composer had of course played in Miles’s comeback band from 1981 to 1983.
He had since made two solo albums and worked with a huge variety of artists, from Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin to Bryan Ferry and Carly Simon, and was aware that Miles had migrated to Warner Bros and wondered if he was looking for new songs.
LiPuma sent him the ‘Backyard Ritual’ demo; Miller was instantly inspired: ‘I thought, “Wow, if Miles is willing to use drum machines and stuff, let me show my take on that.” I wasn’t directly musically influenced by George’s track but it gave me a direction.’
Miller wrote and recorded demos for ‘Tutu‘, ‘Portia‘ and ‘Splatch‘ back-to-back, playing all the instruments himself. Previewing the tracks with Miles and LiPuma in LA in March 1986, he got an immediate green light to turn this into an album project – this was the direction they had been looking for.
Miller began recording the final versions of the three tunes immediately with the help of keyboardist and programmer Adam Holzman.
There’s been a lot of speculation as to why none of Miles’s touring band were invited to play on the Tutu sessions, with opinions differing as to who made the decision. Miller insists, ‘I wasn’t party to the decision not to use the live band but Tommy didn’t push me in any direction. He let me do my thing.’
Miles seemed to resign himself to the convenience of the situation, saying, ‘Rather than get myself, the working band and Tommy into all kinds of hassles by trying to bring my band in the studio to record music I might like, but Tommy doesn’t, we do it this way.’
Consequently, although some choice session players appear on the album, such as drummer Omar Hakim and the aforementioned Paulinho Da Costa, as well as some of Miller’s trusted friends and collaborators like keyboardist Bernard Wright, synth programmer Jason Miles and electric violinist Michal Urbaniak, there’s a unified sound to Tutu that comes directly from Miller’s contributions on fretted and fretless basses, keyboards, drum programming and occasional live drums.
His soprano sax acts as Miles’s main instrumental foil on the album, particularly evident on the call-and-response phrases in ‘Tomaas’.
Once the backing tracks had been laid down, LiPuma and Miller documented Miles’s trumpet playing as spontaneously as possible without resorting to too many ‘comp’d’ takes (final versions made up of several performances).
Apart from this being a necessity as Miles didn’t like to do more than two takes, it was also an intelligent arrangement idea serving as a contrast to the painstaking and meticulous piecing together of the backing tracks.
According to legend, Miles’s solos on the title track and ‘Portia’ are complete takes from beginning to end. Miller found himself performing on soprano sax at the same mic as Miles during the recording of ‘Portia’. He called it ‘one of the most tense experiences I’d ever had’.
But, by most accounts, Miles was a receptive and willing participant in the creative process, once telling Miller, ‘Come on, man, I don’t mind a little bit of direction! You wrote the tunes. Tell me where you want me to play.’ Again, Miles demonstrates his total respect for the composer.
Miles was also reportedly responsible for the inclusion of one of the more controversial cuts on the album, the Scritti Politti cover tune ‘Perfect Way‘. Miles apparently cajoled Miller into recording the song, believing it had the potential to be the new ‘Time After Time’, and even wanted to call the album ‘Perfect Way’ until just before release.
But Miller expressed reservations about replicating Scritti’s legendary ‘Swiss watch’ arrangements, and with good reason – the Tutu version does sound rather laboured and weedy compared to the original. But Miles remained a big Scritti fan and two years later made a memorable guest appearance on their ‘Oh Patti’ single.
So has Tutu stood the test of time? The title track, ‘Portia’ and ‘Tomaas’ would surely be right at home on any Miles best-of, with their majestic themes, engaging harmonies, slinky grooves and strong trumpet playing.
‘Full Nelson‘ remains a great tribute to Prince’s sound circa Parade and Sign Of The Times, while ‘Don’t Lose Your Mind‘ is a classy approximation of Sly and Robbie‘s mid-’80s collaborations. But ‘Perfect Way’, ‘Backyard Ritual’ and ‘Splatch’ unfortunately now sound suspiciously like beautifully-produced filler.
But, taken as a whole, Tutu is a very important album whose success was helped immeasurably by Irving Penn‘s striking cover portrait. It crystallised Miles’s interest in funk, soul and R’n’B more successfully than Decoy or You’re Under Arrest, whilst retaining a crucial ‘jazz’ flavour.
It was also a statement of political intent and black pride, significantly referencing both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in its song titles. And – perhaps most crucially – it was a hit, introducing a whole new generation to Miles’ unique trumpet sound.
For much more on Tutu and Miles’s ’80s work, check out George Cole’s great book ‘The Last Miles’ and also Paul Tingen’s ‘Miles Beyond’.