I’m not sure that there’s much left to be written about Bill Laswell, notoriously prolific and respected jazz producer and dub fanatic, except retrospectively. He’s been around for so long, worked with so many people and made so much great music, that his newer material is almost inevitably going to be held up as uninspired, unfocused or unnecessary. I’m sure if I was feeling pretentious enough I could work up some steam in the direction of Laswell being a one-man musical proof of Fukuyama’s End Of History theory; he’s done everything important that needed doing, and now he’s just continuing because, well, what else is there?
For those very few of you who don’t think you know who I’m talking about, I’m certain you’ve heard him, even if you haven’t heard of him. Here’s a really small selection of the artists whose music Laswell has produced or played bass in: Afrika Bambaataa, Bootsy Collins, Fela Kuti, George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Iggy Pop, Maceo Parker, Mick Jagger, Motorhead, Peter Brotzmann, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sly & Robbie, Miles Davis, John Zorn, Brian Eno, Santana and Bob Marley. It’s enough to make Alexander the Great weep. Oh, and in his spare time he runs his own record label, Innervisions, and discovers world class vocal talents like Whitney Houston, or more recently Gigi. And they say bassists are the boring ones.
On this, his fifth release for ROIR in his Sacred System/Dub Chamber series, he’s roped in some relatively anonymous collaborators to continue a journey that’s already included Graham Haynes, Nils Petter Molvaer, and Craig Taborn. Bernie Worrell (of Parliament & Funkadelic) plays keyboards, Adou Mboup lays down the rhythmic bedrock, Karsh Kale adds further layers of percussion, and Jah Wobble drops by to co-compose, co-produce, and add even more KO-power to the line-up. The latter is perhaps the closest thing Britain has produced by way of a UK Laswell, and as such, I’ll be omitting further resume highlights or this review would be turn into an implausibly dense celebrity name stew. To do so would be to follow an entirely wrong track, as the deep dark drift of these six incantations to the cosmic soul transcend mere individuality. Nah kids, what we’ve got here are entirely instrumental, free floating backdrops for Laswell and Wobble to swell through, (and pull, echoing behind them), as their strings well up at the front of the mix with mesmerizing, effortless power. Flowing from lysergic wallows via trance-inducing solos that border on the aggressive, the majestic purity of the electric bass’s tone drops onto the silky backing like a greased ball bearing, drawing all sound in towards it as the two players ebb and flow to their own rhythms, creating and casting off grooves with disdainful ease. Everyone else is left to ride the waves, relegated to creating peaceful sub-rhythms with their own reverbs when the bass subsides momentarily. Filling out the record’s harmonic range, the inevitable treble tones bloom and then sink angelically into the distance; plumes of dulcet, spiritual light being thrown off into the silent beyond as the trail to the bass’ comet.
If you think I’m being pretentious and long-winded, listen for yourself (although admittedly track titles like “Dystopia” and “Space-Time Paradox” probably set me off in certain directions anyhow). But then that’s more or less the point of dub: sound serving as a meditation bath, to be reveled in and felt purely for itself, to be felt as oneself. Laswell knows this supremely well, being a lifetime dub devotee, and his compositions showcase the genre at its most insistent and beautiful; the pulse at the heart of the world. One of the best albums in a year that’s provided a plentiful crop of blissful and deeply musical dub, Version 2 Version is as compelling as music this expansive, albeit sparse, can get. However, the Hendrix-esque guitar vibes of two tracks aside, the recording suffers slightly from a certain lack of variety in its sonic texture, which is why you should probably first pick up the fourth in this series, Book Of Exit, as it’s adorned by the irresistible tones of Ethiopian Gigi (pick up her Laswell-produced, Pharaoh Sanders-featuring debut whilst you’re at it) and is simply spellbinding. Beyond that, I think I’ll let the music of Laswell the Great speak (or hum, chant, etc.) for itself.
For the record, I was stone-cold sober whilst listening to this album and writing the review. If I hadn’t been, PopMatters would have had to send someone round to dig my head out of a bass bin if they’d wanted any more reviews. It’s that deep, bra.