Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Bassist, producer. Gigged in Detroit mid-'70s, played with idiosyncratic improvising groups like Material (CDs on Metrotone), Massacre (Killing Time on Celluloid), Curlew (on Cuneiform) etc. Not into showing off dexterity as a performer but the bass itself, infl. by reggae. Own albums incl. Baselines '82 on Rough Trade UK/Elektra USA, with drummers Ronald Shannon Jackson, Phillip Wilson plus many other sounds, and Praxis on Celluloid; toured Japan, Germany with Last Exit, a quartet with Jackson, Peter Br”tzmann on sax, Sonny Sharrock on guitar (b 27 Aug. '40, Ossining NY; d there 26 May '94: Sharrock was one of few jazzmen using steel guitar since his days with Herbie Mann '67--73; also recorded with Wayne Shorter '69, Miles Davis '70; own LPs incl. Black Woman on Vortex, Paradise '74 on Atco with his wife Linda). Last Exit's eponymous LP of furious fusion on Enemy '86 followed by The Noise Of Trouble/Live In Tokyo '87 with Akira Sakata added on reeds, both got five stars in down beat; Cassette Recordings '87 followed. Laswell also made duo with Br”tzmann Low Life on Celluloid; hit the big time as producer with Herbie Hancock's Future Shock '83, hit 'Rockit'; also album Sound System '84. Recording sessions were well planned, but the music was not written down: 'The people who write it out sound like they wrote it out, and sound like they're reading it when they play.' He erased Fela Kuti's sax from Army Arrangements, substituting organ parts ('The fact is, Fela can't play sax') but works for the artist rather than the record label: the sound of radio is the sound of money; 'I've never actually done a record for money,' etc; but perhaps his studio sound is only in advance of the noise on the radio: '...I never need songs. I think it's a primitive, old-fashioned format. The only interesting thing in the last 50 years is noise -- the sound of technology.' Other prod. incl. She's The Boss (Mick Jagger), Mr. Heartbreak (Laurie Anderson), Electric Africa (Manu Dibango), Starpeace (Yoko Ono), Nona Hendryx on RCA; played and co-prod. James Blood Ulmer's America -- Do You Remember The Love? '86 on Blue Note. Having acquired a reputation as a drum machine expert he used star flesh and blood on Album '86 by Public Image Ltd, but the sleeve listed no personnel; he'd like the question to be whether it's any good, not who played on it. Last Exit's Iron Path '89 was more strong stuff, their first studio album; more Laswell CDs incl. compilations Deconstruction: The Celluloid Recordings on Metrotone, Dark Massive/Disengage: An Ambient Compendium on M.I.L. Multimedia, both two-CD sets; also Second Nature on Sub Meta, Sacred System on ROIR. Along with the noise he also prod. albums by Henry Threadgill, music played by real humans; trio Arcana made The Last Wave '95 on DIW: Laswell, Derek Bailey and Tony Williams. Laswell also did a substantial remix of Miles Davis studio music (1969--74), Panthalassa '98. With Chris Blackwell's help he formed the Axiom label for his unique productions (he hates labels, thought jazz-rock fusion was a failure, preferred to remember 'What fusion should have been'): releases incl. Ginger Baker's Middle Passage (with Jah Wobble), Sharrock's Ask The Ages, Jackson's Red Warriors, Jonas Hellborg's The Word; Axiom went into the bush to record Night Spirit Masters by Gnawa Music of Marrakesh. Mysteries Of Creation '97 was a two-CD set of dub (the bass-heavy derivative of reggae), reworking tracks by Sly and Robbie, Dub Syndicate, Jah Wobble, New Kingdom etc to make 'a pneumatic, darkly atmospheric, quasi-ambient work' (Andrew Smith in the London Sunday Times). (Other quotes from interviews with Bill Milkowski in down beat, Vivien Goldman in The Observer, Tony Parsons in the Daily Telegraph.)