Milford Graves is a genuinely legendary figure, notably a member, in the mid-1960s, of the New York Art Quartet. He’s often credited as a seminal figure in the development of free music. But in later years he’s appeared on no more than a trickle of recordings: recent examples include notable duets with saxophonist David Murray (Real Deal, 1994) and John Zorn (50th Birthday Celebration Volume 2, 2003), as well as a trio date with Anthony Braxton and William Parker, the superb Beyond Quantum (2008).
Bill Laswell, by contrast, has redefined ‘prolific’. He’s probably better known as a producer than as a bassist. After making his mark by producing and playing bass on every track on Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock (1983), he carved out a distinctive style that flowered in a slew of projects on Laswell-run labels (Axiom, Subharmonic, Innerythmic, M.O.D. Technologies) that brought together a heady mix of Jazz, ‘world music’, P-Funk and avant-rock luminaries such as Wayne Shorter, Pharoah Sanders, Bernie Worrell and W. S. Burroughs, for ad-hoc projects including the ever-mutable Material and Praxis.
Space / Time • Redemption (TUM Records) is the Graves/Laswell duo’s first recording, following a string of occasional concerts in their shared hometown, New York City. The album was produced by Laswell and recorded at Laswell’s own studios. Each performance was improvised, but Laswell’s production skills are subtly in evidence.
Amid all his disparate production and session work, the sound of Laswell’s distinctive, elastically dubby bass playing, heard at its most florid in the avant-jazz groups Last Exit, Massacre and Painkiller, has gone in and out of favour. On this album he’s at his deftest musical best.
The first piece, “Eternal Signs”, gives anyone familiar with Laswell’s bass what they’d expect. His distinctive pliancy and reverberant roundedness carries the tune’s melody, with a hook that reminds me, obliquely, of Joy Division’s “Love will Tear Us Apart”, while Graves layers insistent hi-hat over busy polyrhythmic play on toms and a brontide of bass drumming.
The performance opens out with Laswell digressing into higher registers, occasionally producing wiry filigree sounds. It’s a shapely performance, which carries a charge of tension despite sounding beautifully unforced. Graves cushions a quite sudden ending with a fluvial rustle of bells.
“Sonny Sharrock” is a dedication to Laswell’s old sparring partner in Last Exit. It begins with mournful luminosity, but develops into a darkly brooding but restless number with submerged currents of Moroccan ambience, all seething percussion and ominously thrumming bass in the low frequencies. Laswell doubles fat bass sounds with percussive taps reminiscent of Ghatam or Udu clay-jug phonics, and Graves evokes rainforest humidity with chimes and cowbells.
On first listening, Space / Time • Redemption may sound engrossing but skeletal, deep roots but no foliage. That impression rapidly dissipates. Laswell does more than lay down a harmonic fundament; his polyphonic style also delivers melodic riches. Still, there’s no ‘lead’ instrumentation, and Graves emphatically favours rhythm over groove.
At 17:28, “Another Space” is the longest cut here (the shortest, “Autopossession” lasts only half as long). It’s a classic slice of Laswellian jazz/fusion. The bassist shades plucked, wiry electric bass runs with resonant sustains while Graves works up a roiling, loose-limbed polyphony accented by gleaming metal percussion strikes, both player’s low-end emanations combining beautifully.
The depth of Grave’s soundfield gives Laswell plenty of space to focus on specific textures, making full use of his effects chain, alternating between power-play gravidity and ambient radiance.
“Autopossession” begins with some of Laswell’s least acoustic sounds, but develops primarily as a solo feature for Graves’ restless contrapuntal creativity, with only subtle electronics shading Graves’ cymbal shimmer when it mimics the incessant chatter of nocturnal insects, implying a broader ecosystem.
“Another Time” flows on from “Autopossession” but varies the mood, with Laswell sounding idiophonic tones in relation to Graves’ percussion on the intro, and becomes loosely groove-centric. It’s another long piece though, and after five minutes Laswell reverts to rounded electric bass, mostly playing out languid, serpentine lines, but also dipping into passages of bubbly vaporising and earthy frictions, testing various effects against the constant push-pull of Graves’ fluid dynamism.
The piece snowballs, formally constrained but overflowing with ideas and energies, typifying the whole.
Milford Graves drums and percussion; Bill Laswell basses.
Buy Space/Time • Redemption direct from TUM Records.