Sly, Miles and Jimi: the album

Too many musical heroes can spoil the broth, but not on Bill Laswell's latest funkathon. Mark Prendergast reports
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The Independent Culture
Surprise, surprise - Bill Laswell has a new record coming out. Well, Bill Laswell always has a record coming out. Yet the New York producer and bass player, famous for his work with Mick Jagger, Motorhead and Herbie Hancock, has no interest in promoting his new product. Having spent a lot of time with his English record company, Island, setting up a phone connection to his Greenpoint studios in Brooklyn, the irascible Laswell picks up the phone and wonders: "Is this an interview? It's gonna be really difficult... Hum... I'm in the middle of a session..."

This has happened before. In fact, it happens on a regular basis, as Laswell is always in the middle of something. He has worked on no less than 200 albums since the late 1970s, the latest, Axiom Funk - Funkcronomicon, being about 25th in a series of records which celebrate, in his own words, "collision music". Funkcronomicon basically wraps the best of Laswell's funk jams with famous musicians like Bootsy Collins and George Clinton of Funkadelic fame, Sly Stone, Maceo Parker (renowned for his work with James Brown) and dub groovers Sly & Robbie into an enormous kaleidoscope where sizzling guitar rock and jungle beats both have a home. It's a soup - a mind-wrenching, gut-pulling concoction which seems haunted by the ghost of Jimi Hendrix. In fact, two tracks - "If Six Was Nine" and "Trumpets & Violins" are credited to the genius of the electric guitar.

One mention of Hendrix and Laswell forgets his session and starts talking. "I think a lot of the music on this record relates not so much to what people got to know about Hendrix but more to the things he was approaching and trying to do near the end of his life. Not a lot of people were aware of his interests and plans, the kind of projects he was working on when he died. It would have been quite disappointing to rock and roll people that he was playing with jazz musicians like Gil Evans and Rashaan Roland Kirk.

"He only scratched the surface of what his music could be, and also didn't have the opportunity to interface with musicians on a higher level. His attempts to work with Miles Davis and Tony Williams never really blossomed. If you go back and talk to people who knew him, the most interesting story about Hendrix was happening just at the point of his death. He was going to make a major step in a very different direction to what people expected."

Hendrix is vital to understanding Laswell. In a recent survey in Q, he praised Hendrix's debut, Are You Experienced, for its production sound and cited Jimi's unreleased and un-realised projects with Miles Davis and Gil Evans as some of the most remarkable albums never made. On Funkcronomicon, Laswell's catches Hendrix's spirit perfectly on a track titled "Pray My Soul", a "Little Wing"-styled ballad sumptuously rendered by the late Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel. Last year, part of this track could be heard on another Laswell compilation called Axiom Ambient, whose "Peace" combined Hendrixalia by Hazel and another guitarist Sonny Sharrock. Sharrock was one of the few late 1960s players Hendrix admired and whom (after Hendrix fell out with Miles Davis over women and musical notation) Miles used on the brilliant fusion album Jack Johnson.

Having Sly Stone on Funkcronomicon is also apt, as Hendrix was booked for a jamming session with Sly & The Family Stone the night he died in London in 1970. Laswell thinks it all came together pretty well. "It's an idea which existed for many years. When it came together, Hendrix was the focal point. All the guys in Funkadelic - particularly Bernie Worrell and Bootsy Collins - always cite Hendrix as a major contributor to their language." Amid the more direct references to Hendrix, Funkcronomicon boasts some wicked grooves, like a version of James Brown's "Sex Machine". The double CD concludes with Eddie Hazel again intoning Hendrix to a celebratory black cultural poem by former Last Poet Umar Bin Hassin. At this stage, you can figure that Bill Laswell's Funkcronomicon is no ordinary record.

Laswell ponders the public perception of what he does. "People have thought of me as heavy metal, and for a while they thought of me as ambient. Now they'll think of me as funk. I've been involved in everything - avant- garde, improvisation, electronic music. What I'm really into is not labels or equipment; it's always intuition and instinct. If the music ain't natural, it ain't real - you're kidding somebody."

This is why Laswell travels a lot, recording on the run in the Far East, North Africa, central Asia; teaming up with the likes of The Orb and Pete Namlock and releasing records in a sort of guerrilla-style attack on the conventional music business structure. "I get the opportunity to play with the greatest musicians in the world, and though much of it won't have a place in the charts, I do it because I feel positive about it. There's a lot of possibilities and there are a lot of records because of that."

Laswell's next release will be titled Axiom Dub - Mysteries of Creation and will involve Sly & Robbie, Adrian Sherwood and Tim Simenon from Bomb The Bass, and musicians in the Brooklyn hip-hop movement. The 45-year- old workaholic sees no end to his music-making. "There are too many records these days and too many people in record companies. What I'm absolutely sure about is that there's not enough music of quality and experience. There's a lot of bullshit. If people remain open and listen, they'll hear a music which creates an environment, an atmosphere and an experience. I hope it's only the beginning of this type of work because it's as endless as space."

n 'Axiom Funk - Funkcronomicon' is released by Island on 31 July