July 17, 2019 / 5:30 PM

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A Tale of Chad Smith, Jon Batiste, John Zorn, Dave Lombardo, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock (but Mostly Bill Laswell)


Readers love supergroups. Take members from a number of well-established musical acts and combine them into one headline-grabbing K'Nex set of talent. The results rarely live up to the sum of its pieces but music fans salivate nonetheless. Music publications take special interest in the subject: The more celebrities we cram into a headline (example A), the more likely the reader follows our hyperlink, the more clicks we get, the more we get paid.

Hence the problematic nature behind Music Times headline announcing the creation of The Process: "Red Hot Chili Peppers Drummer Chad Smith to Release 'The Process' with Jon Batiste" (which has since been amended).

No doubt that Smith fills the role of the most widely recognized member in the act, and Batiste has gathered both acclaim and attention with appearances on The Colbert Report, but surely bassist and final member Bill Laswell deserves an ounce of attention, considering the nearly 4,000 recordings bearing his name in some respect for his contributions.

The greater listening world's ambivalence to Laswell's existence is a sensation all too familiar for him.

"I never put a lot of effort into making it known that I was doing things," he says. "This record, I read a review where it said 'this is a great breath of fresh air, great improvisation, a jam session over the course of three days produced this incredible result.' I worked for 2.5 months on that record myself without the other two. That should give you an idea of what I deal with pretty much daily."

Laswell's irritation derives less from the fact that you don't know him and more from the misconception that he's achieved his Asha Bhosle-with-a-bass-sized discography by just jumping on every jam session he can find. The guy simply networks well.

Among the projects he's tackled during 2014 outside of The Process: The Dream Membrane, an esoteric Kabbalah-based spoken word album with frequent collaborator/avant-garde musician John Zorn and Boxcar frontman David Smith, plus finding time to mix Abraxas's Psychomagia (another Zorn project) among others, produce Blind Idiot God's Before Ever After, and squeeze in a few international dates with Bladerunner, the band he occupies with Zorn and founding Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo.

"Maybe ten, if I can count it all up," Laswell says, ticking off current projects and lamenting the difficulty in planning tours around them. "I do like the idea of trying to do mini-festivals. John Zorn does those." Still, he wonders out loud whether anyone could conceivably stage a concert performance capable of showcasing every facet he would wish to touch upon. Many of Zorn's projects share common ground in experiemntal jazz, which is to say ground that's hardly common. Still, Laswell stretches the concept of diversity to new extremes. 

Laswell apologized for coming across as critical of Zorn's work (the pair are good friends), but the bassist's depth of experience has heightened his sense of sincerity to the point where automatic reverence no longer serves as an option. Frequent anecdotes throughout his discussion with Music Times revealed opinions rarely heard in the media about established icons, from his refusal to take part in Miles Davis' Tutu sessions because he didn't like the direction "The Chief" was heading in, to his subliminal slight at Lombardo's early work with Slayer, widely considered among the best metal drum performances of all time ("I played with him about ten years ago and he was kind of finding his way...it's an incredible evolution. The older he got, he got infinitely better"). Although the existence of the artist can't be questioned, Laswell's tone suggests a musical scientist, documenting everything he's heard and every performance he's took part in. That voice, less criticism than a statement of fact, has made him cool with notorious perfectionists like Ginger Baker and chilled with bands such as White Zombie, who proclaimed its distaste for his methods while recording Make Them Die Slowly.

Still, for every naysayer there performers such as Batiste, who hold Laswell's approach in the highest regard.

"I though Bill was a genius before we worked together and this just confirmed it," the pianist told Music Times. "He is an amazing musical mind and an efficient collaborator. He brought out another side of my creativity."

Laswell follows his gut—but his gut has a wide appetite. His own groups Method of Defiance and Material (among others) pop up from time to time with a new album, while the bassist keeps busy pushing new records from his M.O.D. Technologies label, ranging from live recordings of Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell to traditional work from Ethiopia and Japan, two of his favorite stops for foreign music (he was formerly married to Ethiopian pop star Gigi). Following his ears to promising projects has always paid offl: He convinced Brian Eno to let him play on the producer's seminal sampling release with David Byrne, My Life in The Bush of Ghosts (for the track "America Is Waiting"), and Material provided the backing for Herbie Hancock's Future Shock, an album that would produce the smash single "Rockit" (the closest thing to commercial success Laswell's touched so far).

His proclivity comes from a refusal to see borders in music as others might. Where some might see shades of gray, Laswell acknowledges the irrefutable boundaries that separate styles of music, a realistic view that disables the conservative concerns the call to tread lightly. "None of it fits," he claims. "That's what holds it together."

The Process, to hear him tell it, came about more as a happy accident, however. Smith and Batiste had previously played together, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer was familiar with Jay Bulger, a friend of Laswell's, from Beware of Mr. Baker, a documentary on the aforementioned Cream drummer. Bulger brought a pitch to the threesome.

"It was going to be Jay Bulger doing a film about three people who had never played together and it didn't have any written music. It was going to be this extraordinary event that no one could ever imagine, musicians that had never played together playing unwritten music," Laswell explained, a hint of snark actually coming out in his voice this time. "So of course it's not much of a concept so the film never happened, but we recorded."

He recognized potential for an album however, commending Smith for his "incredibly creative drumming," and brought in guests such as TV On The Radio's Tunde Adebimpe and the Wu-Tang Clan's Killah Priest. Most importantly, perhaps, was the attention that comes with dropping a record that features a member of a platinum-selling band. Hence the rush of coverage for a supergroup featuring Smith and Batiste, jazz's rising star.

Oh yeah, and Bill Laswell.

"The Process" will be available for purchase November 4 via mod-technologies.com.

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