Since the early eighties, keyboard virtuoso Bernie Worrell has explored many musical universes with bassist, producer, conceptualist and overall musical visionary Bill Laswell. Indeed, Laswell has been the architect of quite a number of Worrell’s solo recordings, from Funk of Ages (Gramavision, 1991) and Blacktronic Science (Gramavision, 1993) to Pieces of Woo (CMP, 1993) and Free Agent – A Spaced Odyssey (Polystar, 1997). Here is the third part of three posts devoted to some of the more interesting Bill Laswell productions that are aided and abetted in some significant way by keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell.
Nagual Site - Sacred System (Wicklow/1999): A strange, nearly unknown disc that, like so many other Bill Laswell productions, brings opposing worlds of music together, whether anybody thinks it will work well or not. One really feels that after a disc like this, even as spotty as this one is, that Bill Laswell deserves repeated praise for such an in-your-face fuck you to the music business. He’s all about unleashing creativity that true music collaboration produces. In this case, it is the Indian music of Gulam Mohamed Khan and Bill Buchen combined with the (admittedly more Indian-oriented) dub experiments of Bill Laswell and Jah Wobble. It’s not exactly a cohesive listen and it hardly seems as if it would please the listeners of either type of music. But both “styles” are built on interesting, repetitive drones – a common thread that only someone like Bill Laswell would hear before anyone, yes anyone, else would ever hear or know enough to connect. Three of the disc’s seven tracks are given over exclusively to the traditional ragas of Khan and Buchen, who sound as if they have very little accompaniment at all. The more interesting material (“Black Lotus,” “X-Zibit-I,” “Dèrive” and “Driftwork”) is obviously directed and conceived by Bill Laswell and probably features Khan and Buchen in some sort of capacity. This is where it all gets really interesting. It is these four songs which make this obscure CD worth every penny. Laswell, as expected, invites many of his famous jazz friends like Dave Liebman, Byard Lancaster, Graham Haynes, Craig Harris, Zakir Hussain and (former Miles Davis tabla man) Badal Roy to participate as well as such usual suspects as Nicky Skopelitis, Jah Wobble, Aiyb Dieng and, notably, Bernie Worrell. Worrell figures prominently on three of the four Laswell compositions, notably taking a terrific organ solo on the Miles-ian “Black Lotus,” which also features the two sopranos of Byard Lancaster and former Miles acolyte Dave Liebman. The Miles Davis influence roars back to life again on the very “On the Corner”-like “X-Zibit-i,” which benefits by Roy Haynes’ son Graham’s very clean lead. This one track alone exhibits Laswell’s brilliance in re-conceiving otherwise (fairly) well-known material. It is a very special outing that finds Worrell delivering some of the organ washes Miles himself threw onto the music (especially during the 1972-75 era…but he was still doing it when I saw The Man live in the mid 1980s, even though he’d taken to the more time-appropriate synthesizer by that point). Worrell also contributes Zawinul-like electric piano chord washes to “Dèrive” that, pardon me, derive from Davis’ In A Silent Way period. As a whole, Nagual Site is hardly satisfying. But at least half of the disc is absolutely worth savoring repeatedly. A sweet find.
Version 2 Version: A Dub Transmission - Bill Laswell (ROIR/2004): Bill Laswell has waxed quite a number of dub discs, becoming something of a leader in yet another field of music. Many of Laswell’s “dub transmissions” are, like this one, collaborations with bassist and multi-instrumentalist Jah Wobble, the best of which is probably the jazz-inflected Radioaxiom: A Dub Transmission (Axiom/2001). But none of Laswell’s dub discs that I know of included Bernie Worrell until this 2004 disc, Version 2 Version. Here, Bill Laswell teams with Jah Wobble (who co-wrote four of the album’s six tracks with Laswell), keyboardist Bernie Worrell, tabla player Karsh Kale and percussionist Abdou Mboup (who also appeared on the 1999 Laswell-produced Save Our Children by Pharoah Sanders), to structure yet another one of his neo-dub experiments; a meeting of classic reggae rhythms with a club-like edge of drum n bass modernism. Kale’s participation lends the disc a slight air of Indian fusion but it’s difficult to tell who is doing what here and how much any one of the five musicians listed on the CD’s sleeve actually contributes. The bass is perhaps the most dominant instrument here (no surprise, given the presence of two bassists) and the percussive edge helps drive things along nicely, even though it’s hard to determine who is laying down the beat(s). Bernie Worrell’s contribution to Version 2 Version is so slight as to be insignificant. A solo organ introduces the opening track, “Dystopia” and a reggae-esque block-chord piano sets the tone for “Night City,” although none of this lasts long enough to even determine whether it’s Bernie Worrell playing. Occasionally synthesized effects are edited in and out like Teo Macero would have done on Miles’s constructed pieces of the early seventies. But again it’s hard to determine whether Bernie Worrell had anything to do with these brief snippets of effect. “Space-Time Paradox” even hints at “Maggot Brain,” but it’s hard to say who is playing the fine guitar to be heard here and whether Bernie Worrell, P-Funk’s musical architect, had anything to do with this piece at all. This is not to say that Version 2 Version is without interest. Laswell has effectively constructed a dub-oriented “soundscape” here, where the music is not so much about the musicians who participate as it is about creating an organic experience out of musical effects. If it succeeds, it’s due to Laswell’s gift for such musical constructions or deconstructions. On the other hand, if it fails, it’s because the personality of the participants seems eradicated to achieve the end result.
Inamorata - Method of Defiance (OHM Resistance/2007): Method of Defiance, a so-called supergroup, appears to be little more than a collection of leftovers from a variety of Bill Laswell productions including such famous jazz friends as Herbie Hancock, Pharoah Sanders, John Zorn, Byard Lancaster and Dave Liebman. But even if it is, the result is something greater than the sum of the parts. Here, Laswell teams such drum n bass superstars as Submerged, Paradox, Fanu and Evil Intent with jazz outsiders (Zorn, Lancaster, Buckethead, Craig Taborn) and jazz edgers who either bear a Miles Davis bond (Hancock, Liebman, Pete Cosey on two tracks) or walk in the trumpeter’s footsteps (Graham Haynes, Nils Petter Molvaer). Indeed, the Paradox-Byard Lancaster-Pete Cosey performance of “Hidden Killer” echoes with Davis-Zawinul’s “Great Expectations” as if fed through a Cuisinart. But that’s not criticism. The result is not only fascinating, but really quite appealing. What’s most notable here is the way Laswell weaves all the wildly varying threads together to form a 70-minute drum n bass experience that explores many differing directions with intrepid interest. Bernie Worrell is credited only on “Humanoid,” a four-minute and 48-second sound collage he co-leads with drumfunk expert Paradox (UK producer Dev Pandya), Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist and Worrell’s Praxis mate Buckethead. Worrell explodes with Fender Rhodes flourishes (and possibly celeste), recalling the sounds and styles of both Hancock’s Headhunters and Chick Corea’s RTF, updated most remarkably for a whole new generation. Kondo’s menacing electric trumpet and (probably) Laswell’s popping Space Bass also add dimension for a performance well worth savoring and exploring further, whether you’re coming to it from a funk place or a jazz space. It’s a new kind of funk and a new kind of jazz. It’s a shame that the group’s name, the album’s cover graphics and even the disc’s title suggest some sort of death metal. That’s not the case at all. There is a lot of high-powered talent involved here doing some interesting work outside of their usual clique and miles away from their typical songbooks. If the disc had some hint of Bill Laswell’s participation, front and center, or alluded at all to its dnb-meets-jazz core, this could really shake a few trees. It’s a great idea exceptionally well executed.
Lodge - Fanu/Bill Laswell (OHM Resistance/2008): Too often, drum n bass fails to excite the imagination or ignite much personality. Sure, it makes for great club music, a terrific sort of aural wallpaper. But rarely, if ever, does anyone stop and ask, “hey, who (or what) is that?” Lodge tends to suffer much the same fate, but with a few notable exceptions. A collaboration between DJ/samplist Fanu and bassist/producer/impresario Bill Laswell, Lodge enlists several top-tier players that have experience in a wide range of musical palettes to give this music far more personality than it usually has. Norwegian trumpet player Nils Petter Molvaer and cornetist Graham Haynes show up here and there to lend a Miles-ian touch to the proceedings, giving Lodge a welcome sort of jazz edge (both Molvaer and Haynes also appear on Laswell’s great dub album with Jah Wobble, Radioaxiom, lending it the same levity they provide here). Bernie Worrell contributes keyboards throughout, playing what sounds like clavinet and electric piano on “Orh” (where Worrell seems to quote David Byrne’s “Dinosaur”) and “Shroud,” clavinet and synthesizers on “Bloodline,” electric piano on “Transgenesis,” synthesizer on “Hollow Ground,” organ and electric piano on “Transfer Code” and a bit of everything on “Fourth Voice.” Worrell’s keyboards color the textures and, as expected, never dominate. He improvises a little on “Transfer Code.” But blink and you just might miss it. Both “Fourth Way” and “Shroud” top the list of the disc’s most interesting moments. The two Pangea-era pieces also prominently feature Worrell’s maddeningly restrained yet always fascinating commentary even though neither of the trumpeters figure on “Shroud” nor do any guitarists. Still, while it’s a pleasure to hear Bernie Worrell mix it up in the jungle, it’s the connection back to Miles’ stunningly progressive 1970s work (brought to the proceedings, no doubt, by Bill Laswell) that make Lodge really stand out.