Bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Milford Graves have recorded a studio album, Space/Time Redemption, for the Finnish TUM label; it’s out now. (Get it from Amazon.) The disc contains five lengthy improvisations, and runs just over an hour. It’s not their first duo interaction; when Laswell curated a residency at John Zorn‘s performance space The Stone in 2014, the two men improvised together, and the results were released, as a single lengthy track, on the bassist’s MOD Technologies imprint. In the January 2015 issue of The Wire, I wrote, “Hearing [Laswell] paired with free drummer Milford Graves on the 40 minute ‘Back in No Time’ is like listening to two records at once. The two men rarely intersect—nobody’s gonna make Milford Graves play a groove—but hearing their individual meanderings in parallel produces a lot of magic.”
Being a studio creation, the balance of power is a little more tilted in Laswell’s favor. The drums are granted equal space in the mix, of course, but they’re recorded in an extremely naturalistic manner. Thus, pairing them with an effects-slathered bass (and occasional, minimal keyboard melodies) is an unexpected combination, and one that causes the ear to gravitate toward the spacier, “weirder” sounds. The first track, “Eternal Signs,” begins with what sound like a few seconds of keyboard noodling, before Laswell launches into a strangely familiar melody (it’s close enough to David Bowie‘s “Warszawa” to become a truly torturous earworm) on the bass. And whatever array of pedals he’s playing through doubles his sound and slathers it in gently blurry harmonics, effectively surrounding Graves’s kit in a fog.
The second track, “Sonny Sharrock,” is where the drummer takes over, at least for a little while. His solo is skittery and loose, the hi-hat keeping a frantic pulse tempo (so fast it’s almost a hissing sound) as he bounces all over the rest of the kit, a tap here, a rattle there. Graves’s playing has a buoyancy that other free drummers’ work lacks. His energy is utterly unique, and while he’s not doing anything here that has the aggression he brought to his 1970s albums, it’s still a phenomenally human performance. Even if they’re not exactly playing together, Laswell is definitely influenced by what Graves is doing. His own playing is very exploratory, never settling into the dubby grooves that he’s best known for (and which he maintained when playing with another titan of ’60s free jazz, Rashied Ali, in the one-off trio Purple Trap, which also featured guitarist Keiji Haino).
The bass is entirely absent on “Autopossession”; it’s a nine-minute drum solo, a breathtaking and time-stopping experience for the listener, as Graves, accompanied only by what sounds like one of those Halloween laughing devices way in the distance (and fed through a filter), creates a rumbling, tribal trance-effect on the floor toms, periodically cutting loose with a fuller roll or some slashing cymbal work. As always, he avoids timekeeping, yet still manages to imply a tumbling, forward momentum. In the performance’s final minute, he begins to play a melody on a cymbal or bell that recalls Chinese ritual music. (It’s also worth noting that both “Autopossession” and the album’s final track, “Another Time,” feature the constant shimmer of a tambourine, a sound that seems like a deliberate nod to one of the most famous duo albums in free jazz, John Coltrane and Rashied Ali‘s Interstellar Space.)
Laswell doesn’t join “Another Time” until the five-minute mark, and he’s playing more slowly and atmospherically than Graves, who’s rattling the kit like a tin shed being shaken by a storm. Between the two of them, it’s your choice who to focus on; in a way, it’s like the disorienting effect brought on by early drum ‘n’ bass records, where the frantic breakbeats were counterbalanced by bubbling, meditative dub bass lines. But as the piece goes on, Laswell’s playing grows busier and busier until he’s matching up with Graves, bouncing around like a racquetball in a clothes dryer as the drums rattle endlessly on…and then, seemingly at a signal known only to himself, he slides back into the singsong-ish, dubby melody he played to signal his entrance, Graves lays down his sticks, the relentless tambourine rises in the mix one final time…and it’s over.
It’s hard to think of a precedent for Space/Time Redemption—it’s a collision of two sounds, two aesthetics, that on the surface couldn’t be farther apart. But at the same time, pairing Milford Graves with a more “traditionally free” bassist would probably have just resulted in an hour of flurrying clatter-and-boing, and been much less satisfying than this weird, dreamlike encounter.
Stream “Eternal Signs”: