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BILL LASWELL: Re-shaping The Music Of Miles Davis

Interview | Producer By Paul Tingen
Published May 1998

BILL LASWELL: Re-shaping The Music Of Miles Davis

Tampering with recordings made by a musical legend like Miles Davis would be seen by many as tantamount to sacrilege. But what if you believed, like producer Bill Laswell, that the music in question had never been heard as it should be? Paul Tingen gets the inside story.

Miles Davis is many different things to many different people: 20th century icon, enigma, famous jazz musician, inimitable trumpet soloist, mighty musical innovator. He invented new jazz styles such as 'cool' and 'hardbop' and, together with arranger Gil Evans, pioneered new ways of blending jazz and orchestral music, in works such as Concierto De Aranjuez and Porgy and Bess. In the mid '60s Davis was at the pinnacle of his career, and everybody expected him to live out his days doing more of the same — playing great jazz music and inventing the odd new jazz style along the way. However, Miles Davis was never one for walking the beaten track, so he did something for which the more elitist layer of the jazz fraternity never forgave him: having just reached his forties he connected with the youth culture of the day and delved into the 'primitive' world of rock music, listening to Sly & The Family Stone, hanging out with Jimi Hendrix, and starting to incorporate electric guitar, electric bass, electric keyboards, rock and funk rhythms, and even drum machines, into his music.

The jazz world was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt — until the watershed album In A Silent Way (1969), featuring legendary jazz musicians such as Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Tony Williams and John McLaughlin. The fragile, introverted music on In A Silent Way has been described as the sound of a band walking on eggshells. After this Davis's music became increasingly loud, rock‑orientated and weird. Bitches Brew (1970) was in some respects a funkier, more aggressive version of In A Silent Way. It sold like hot cakes to rock fans, and earned him accusations of 'selling out' and 'betrayal' from jazzers.

Everything you hear on Panthalassa comes from the information that is on the multitracks.

From this point Davis's path diverged from that of the jazz world. He increasingly went out on a limb, mixing sitars, tablas, African percussion and influences from avant‑garde classical composers such as Stockhausen and Messiaen in a wild, experimental cocktail. On The Corner (1972) was basically one long groove, a bizarre exercise in funk, African rhythms and minimalism, while Get Up With It (1974) was an even stranger concoction of ambient, avant‑garde, African, blues, calypso, and funk influences. Finally, after the frenetic live recordings Dark Magus (1974) and Agharta (1975), Miles dropped out of sight, both personally and musically. He took a six‑year depression‑ and drug‑soaked sabbatical, and abandoned the musical direction he had been pursuing. After his comeback in 1981, he did not pick up where he had left off in 1975, and until his death in 1991 played a hybrid of rock and jazz that was much more approachable and melodic.


Miles Davis.Miles Davis.

So the radical experiments of the 1969‑1975 period were left to stand on their own, and almost 30 years later the world still hasn't made much sense of them, with the exceptions of In A Silent Way, which was regarded as a classic by jazz fans, and Bitches Brew, which made Davis's name in the rock world. The music was as much an enigma as its maker. Moreover, the impenetrable density of some of the rhythm tracks, the often poor bass sound, and the awkwardness of some of the edits makes one wonder whether his vision had ever been done justice to in the way it was committed to vinyl. It's said that many of Davis's studio records were constructed by heavy tape editing and put together by jazz engineers and producers, which strengthens the impression that somehow, somewhere along the line, something was lost, or was never brought to fruition.

Then, earlier this year, a remarkable CD was released that sheds new light on this most obscure and misunderstood era of Miles Davis's career. This new release subjected some of Davis's music of this period to "reconstruction & mix translation", according to the sleeve notes — and with astonishing results. Music writer Richard Williams commented in The Guardian that something "genuinely exceptional" happened in this process: "the music sounds more like itself." His colleague, the well‑known jazz critic John Fordham, observed that "a tautness and purpose has been brought to hours of exploratory studio time" making it sound "startlingly contemporary."

These are no mean compliments, and they are more than justified. Panthalassa: The Music Of Miles Davis 1969‑1974, is an outstanding piece of work. The man behind it is the New York bassist and producer Bill Laswell, himself no stranger to experimentation and breaking down the boundaries of music. He's managed to have artists as diverse as John Lydon, Steve Vai, Ginger Baker, L Shankar and Ryuichi Sakamoto perform on the same record (Album, by Public Image Ltd) or, even more extremely, Whitney Houston, Archie Shepp and Fred Frith (on Material's One Down). He's a pioneer of hip‑hop, ambient, avant‑funk and world music, and has worked with Herbie Hancock, Brian Eno, Afrika Bambaata, George Clinton, Mick Jagger, Sly & Robbie and Hector Zazou, amongst others. He's the co‑founder of the band Material and of the Axiom record label, which is "devoted to challenging the commercial institutions of the music industry through the release of genre‑defying records that were meant to forge new pathways in sound, rhythm, samples, beats... and beyond." By all accounts, Laswell is an archetypal musical revolutionary who has the perfect qualifications to re‑work old material from that other archetypal revolutionary, on Panthalassa.

The opening track of the album sees Laswell compressing the 35 minutes of the original In A Silent Way album into a suite that lasts just 15 minutes, and the improvement is remarkable. He's brought a new, tight structure to the music, composing a totally new piece from totally familiar material. It now has a beginning, a build‑up, a middle and an end, instead of starting somewhere arbitrarily and ceasing somewhere equally arbitrarily. The sound of the instruments themselves, often a bit shrill and jarring on the 1969 version, is now beautifully warm, full and clear. The upright bass sounds like an electric bass and there are various new atmospheric drones and pads that add texture and atmosphere. The second track contains material from On The Corner, including two previously unreleased out‑takes, and although there is less obvious reconstructing, the new mix brings a new transparency and funkiness to the rhythm section, with the bass brought right up front. Like the third track, which contains material from Get Up With It, it sounds like experimental drum and bass with hip‑hop influences, 25 years ahead of its time. Suddenly it all makes sense.

Miles's music was dealing with repetitive rhythms and repetitive bass lines, the same thing that you hear today in drum and bass and techno.


BILL LASWELL: Re-shaping The Music Of Miles Davis

Overall, the sound of Panthalassa is so fresh and contemporary that one wonders whether Miles's '70s music was really this prescient, or whether Laswell has re‑interpreted it with the sonic and aesthetic perspective of someone living in the late '90s. So was Laswell trying to bring out the music the way he thought Miles might have wanted it, or did he do a '90s re‑interpretation? Via transatlantic telephone Laswell comments: "It was both those things, and more. The first thing to realise about his records from those years is that they are interpretations of original performances. What's on those records does not necessarily correspond to the way things were played. The records were the result of a day's work in the studio, of lots of tape editing and manipulation. They weren't representing a particular performance. From 1969 onwards there was a tremendous amount of tape recording going on. The tapes were rolling, hours and hours of them were being filled, and then producer Tio Macero determined what ended up on the record and how it would sound. Macero is from a classical and jazz background, and I can't imagine someone with a background like that having a clue what to do with the kind of stuff Miles was producing. To me, the music Miles was making at the time had nothing to do with jazz; it will therefore always be controversial from the perspective of jazz people. So one of my prime objectives was to remix and reconstruct Miles's music from a non‑jazz perspective."

"When I was putting Panthalassa together, I was trying to imagine how people with a jazz and classical music background would have tried to make sense of this music. And I don't think they got it. It was too new for them. These were people who had been involved in making classic jazz albums like Kind Of Blue, and all of a sudden the music got a lot denser and darker and there were new and weird instruments to deal with. How was all that supposed to sound? There was simply no reference point. Also, I talked a lot with Miles during the '80s, and I was aware that he didn't have a lot of control over the records as they came out. Tio and Columbia determined the results, and in some cases I don't even think that Miles had access to titles, artwork and so on. Tio worked as a producer for Columbia, and his work was to get the job done, get it edited and get it out quickly, because in those days records were coming out very frequently. People were, to a large extent, controlling music for which they didn't have a fitting vision. Miles's music was dealing with repetitive rhythms and repetitive bass lines, the same things that you would hear being developed at the time in rock and funk and R&B and reggae, and the same thing that you hear today in drum and bass and techno. You have to approach that kind of music with more of a rock sensibility. You want to make the bass big and heavy, you want the drums to be powerful and hard‑hitting, and in a piece with very dense rhythmic patterns you want clarity, so that you can hear what's being played."

In applying his "rock sensibility", Laswell has managed to bring a staggeringly different perspective to music that has been misunderstood and/or ignored for two to three decades.


BILL LASWELL: Re-shaping The Music Of Miles Davis

The name Panthalassa is a reference to the last two albums Miles made before his retirement in 1975. Agharta and Pangaea are both live double albums, and both were recorded on February 1st 1975 (!) in Japan. Agharta is a future Utopian spiritual centre of power, situated somewhere underneath the earth, Pangaea is the primordial continent, and Panthalassa the one primordial ocean. Laswell explains that, despite the reference to the names of these two live albums, he didn't use any material from them, because "live albums are a whole different universe: their timeline is largely linear, and I don't think it would make sense to alter it. There is very little editing in those works: they are what they are, whereas all the studio stuff was extensively manipulated and so does lend itself to a process of re‑manipulation. Macero's editing and cut and paste methods were in some respects quite innovative and pioneering, and the remix culture caught up with them some 20 years later. But Macero's approach was also often more of a kind of shuffling process, trying to construct something that could be put out as a record. It wasn't really comparable to the way people now use recording studios and technology creatively to make new music. The studio wasn't used as an instrument. It was more a matter of intuitively trying to determine a result, fairly quickly, and in some cases fairly sloppily. It could have been done better."

The music you record is much more important than what you record it on. Just because you have new equipment it doesn't mean that you have new music.

Some 30 years later Laswell also caught up with Macero, in more than one sense. He explains that the whole point of his "reconstruction & mix translation" process was to apply a similar process to the original master tapes as did Macero — but from a different perspective. And this influenced both Laswell's working methods and his choice of pieces: "In A Silent Way was the classic transition period for Miles, and I knew that it had been chopped and changed, so I was very curious as to what had really been going on. I was also interested in the slow, melodic, ambient potential of the piece. On The Corner was always the beginning of mutant hip‑hop for me. It was a favourite record; I could hear that there had been a lot of editing going on here as well, and I wanted to find out what really happened. The same with Get Up With It, which contained some very radical pieces for the time, such as 'Rated X'. In all these cases I was curious about what I could bring to the music though a continuation of exactly the same process as Tio had applied, and, believe it or not, I used a very similar technique. I didn't want to dump all the information in a computer and then manipulate it in there, so I decided to do it in exactly the same way, transferring material from one tape format to another and then editing everything on analogue half‑inch tape, before finally transferring it to a DAT master.

"I wanted to edit on half‑inch tape, using razor blades, because I wanted to encounter the same kind of problems, I wanted to arrive in the same areas where one thing automatically leads to another. When you put musical material in Pro Tools or something like that, you're immediately embracing endless options and possibilities. Things can go anywhere. I felt that there was an essence to the music, even in the versions that Tio did; it holds together in a particular form that you don't want to pull apart too much. You don't want to do a complete recondition, but you want to improve the ideas, clean things up and keep the same flow going. But to keep that flow going you have to speak a similar technical language. Just to have a million options will not necessarily produce great results, nor will it produce anything related to what Miles Davis was about during that period. By limiting my options and working with a similar method as when the music was made, I was holding and continuing a flow that was already naturally established in the music. The other aspect of this was that I did not add anything to the material that was on the multitracks. I processed and re‑positioned sounds, and used parts from out‑takes that have never been heard before on previous releases, but no sounds or instruments were added by me. Everything you hear on Panthalassa comes from the information that is on the multitracks."


Taking the process apart from a technical perspective, it emerges that Miles's material arrived at Laswell's loft‑located Greenpoint Studios in Brooklyn, New York on "25 or 26" reels of 24‑track analogue multitrack tape. These were safety copies made from the original 8‑ and 16‑track tapes, located (with some difficulties apparently) and transferred by producer Bob Belden. At Greenpoint, an old and obscure broadcast model Neve desk, a Studer 24‑track tape recorder, an Akai ADAM 12‑track digital tape recorder, and a wealth of outboard gear, much of it old and exotic, were the main tools at Laswell's disposal. He explains the process: "I obviously began by making an inventory of what was on the 24‑track tapes and choosing which sections I wanted to use. I then started recreating things by transferring material from the 24‑track to the Akai 12‑track, just as if I was composing music. In part these were straight transfers from multitrack to 12‑track. And in part I would isolate a guitar or a horn part, say, and fly these in, either straight and therefore with relatively random timing, or by sampling them with an Akai S1000 and then flying them back in, using a keyboard to trigger the sound. I used some out‑takes — there's some guitar playing on my version of In A Silent Way that was not on the original, and was taken from a different part of the session, and I also took material from the On The Corner sessions, Indian drones from an electric sitar, for example, and flew them into a track like 'He Loved Him Madly' to help create an ambience. Once I'd completed my musical arrangements on the ADAM, I would mix them to a Studer A80 2‑track.

"The In A Silent Way sessions were 8‑track and came on two reels of 24‑track tape. They were recorded with the tapes rolling at a lower speed, which gives you about 30 minutes per reel, and a great deal that was played, especially the central theme of the piece, is not on the original record. Nor is it on the version I did, because it never quite came together in the performance. But surrounding that are sections and phrases that do work, and from which the record is built. On the original album a piece of tape is repeated twice, purely to get enough length to justify an album and have a product. I repeated that section too, but treated the repeat a little differently, by featuring certain instruments that were not audible on the original. The thing to realise is that all those original sessions were recorded really well. They were miked up by professional engineers, everything was done with state‑of‑the‑art equipment for the time, so there is a clear signal on tape. It was easy for me to bring the drums and bass up‑front and give them a more dynamic, bigger sound that suits repetitive parts. The bass on In A Silent Way was an upright, and I tried to make it sound more like an electric bass by using effects such as the dbx 120x Subharmonic Synthesizer to enhance or synthesize the bottom end. This is an incredibly cheap box that brings out low end in a kind of synth way that I really like. I also took some bass drone and bowed bass, and looped and processed this and used it in different places to get an ambient or atmospheric texture.

"The drums and bass are pretty static but there is some very fractured playing in the keyboards, and the original In A Silent Way contained some pretty brutal edits. So I tried to build up more of a composed piece with a flow, using that bowed bass as an opener. There were also some loud sounds which we ducked, such as a bottle falling on the piano and some talking that no‑one had bothered to edit out 30 years ago. The album On The Corner was basically two basslines with short one‑ or two‑minute pieces being pulled in and out in a very chopped‑up way. I've got six reels of that session, and I think a really coherent album could be made, with a flow and a sequence that would bring people into the music. The tracks 'What If' and 'Agharta Prelude Dub' were out‑takes from sessions recorded around the time of On The Corner, with John McLaughlin playing some pretty primitive and aggressive guitar on 'What If'. One of my main jobs in remixing and reconstructing the On The Corner sessions was to bring clarity into the rhythm tracks.

"The same went for the rhythm track on 'Rated X'. It's very, very dense, and on vinyl it always sounded unbelievably bad and muddy, with an organ sound taken from some other session pushing everything else into the background. But the rhythm tracks were recorded very well — it's just how they were EQ'd and balanced at the time. They clearly didn't have a clue how to deal with these dense rhythms, but for today's ears their density and detail makes them sound very modern. I also mixed the organ very low, to make space for the details in the rhythm track. Finally, the version of 'He Loved Him Madly' on the multitracks was even longer than 30 minutes. That track could be a whole CD by itself, but I felt I had to shorten it for this project. I had to think about the overall experience and continuity of hearing all four sections from beginning to end, starting with an ambient idea at the beginning and ending with an ambient idea, while putting more rhythmic information in the middle. The edits I did on 'He Loved Him Madly' were relatively straightforward. Of all the tracks it was least tampered with. We just EQ'd the sounds, brought out the drums and bass more, and used treated organ and sitar parts to create a certain ambience."

Different Perspective

Given Laswell's stated aim, that he wanted to use equipment and an editing process similar to that used during the time these recordings were made, the appearance of an Akai ADAM comes as a bit of a surprise. He clarifies that he used the ADAM purely for reasons of convenience and that it didn't alter the basic philosophy with which he made Panthalassa: "I used the ADAM 12‑track because I like the sound of that machine. I find that there's something about the way it retains the low end and is not hard at the top. And I find that mixing stuff from the ADAM to the [Studer] A80 gives a really nice warm sound. In general I'm not bothered about whether I use analogue or digital. I really like the sound of analogue for bottom end, and for heavier music noise isn't a problem, because I think that that noise becomes part of the music. But I think digital is great for certain things too. The music you record is much more important than what you record it on. Just because you have new equipment it doesn't mean that you have new music. Having said that, it's true that I have a lot of vintage gear in my studio, and I do find that it translates into a certain sound. It requires a lot more maintenance, but it's worth it."

One of my prime objectives was to remix and reconstruct Miles's music from a non‑jazz perspective.

Since he finished work on Panthalassa, Laswell has moved his Greenpoint Studios to Orange in New Jersey. It's now called Orange Music Studios and features two control rooms, both with vintage Neve desks, Studer 24‑tracks and 2‑tracks, and all manner of more or less esoteric outboard gear, such as Orban, Massenburg, Pultec, Urei and Summit EQs; ADR, CBS Labs, Demeter, Summit and Urei compressors; AMS, EMT, Eventide, Fairchild, Korg, Lexicon and Roland reverbs. There are also various digital recorders (Akai ADAM, Tascam DA88, DAT), samplers (Akai S3000 and S1000HD) and a Mac computer running Mark Of The Unicorn's Performer, Steinberg's ReCycle and Digidesign Sound Tools software. But the emphasis is on the analogue and esoteric. This clearly has to do with his love of bass sounds, something which he explored to great effect on the Bob Marley ambient dub CD Dreams Of Freedom: "I've been greatly influenced by dub music, which was the music style that initiated the current emphasis on bass. On Dreams Of Freedom I went for a fairly straightforward dub approach, taking out Marley's voice, which is normal, though going for a bit more of an ambient atmosphere than usual. We used all sorts of primitive effects on background vocals and instruments, including guitar effects pedals such as the Echoplex for echo repeats and delays. The old Eventide H910 Harmonizer was also used a lot. But the bass is always centre‑stage, and it's interesting to see how our perception of bass has changed over the last 25 years. I've also been influenced in my studio work by hearing bass on PA sound systems, and trying to make the bass sound bigger and bigger all the time."

It's one of the areas in which Laswell is pushing at the boundaries, doing justice to his reputation as a 'radical'. He remarks that it's a "struggle" because it's "not really appreciated in terms of business". This is the very reason why he set up his Axiom label: "I felt there were many things that could be done musically, yet they weren't happening. I wanted to create and release more examples that show things in a different way. It is important to let people know that whatever they've been conditioned to go along with, there are always different ways of doing things. There are a lot of music styles and sounds and influences out there, and it's a matter of networking with innovative people and bringing them together so that music can change. Sadly, the world is also full of people who think that things are a certain way, and I feel it is part of my job to show that that is just not the case. People who create music and art have to continuously evolve and go beyond conventionally held beliefs. Miles Davis was a perfect example of someone who consciously tried to evolve, and by doing that he changed things and confused a great deal of people."

How Did He Do That?

How on earth did Laswell manage to lay his hands on material that, despite its uncertain reputation, would still be regarded as sacrosanct by many? Sony/Columbia have always been admirably restrained in exploiting Miles Davis's back catalogue, so how did Laswell persuade them to hand him the old multitrack master tapes? Apparently the first conceptual seeds were sown by former Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, who had the idea for a series of re‑interpretations of Bob Marley's music, and invited Laswell to try his hand on the material. The result was Dreams Of Freedom, Ambient Translations Of Bob Marley In Dub (out on Island/Axiom late last year). During the same period, Laswell had extensive discussions with Steve Berkowitz, the A&R manager at Columbia in charge of the re‑issues of the Miles Davis catalogue, and convinced him that a lot of experimental music from the late '60s and early '70s "also lends itself to different interpretations. We started with this music from Miles, and there may be more projects to come."