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by Dan Grunebaum

Tokyo Rotation

Mercurial New Yorker Bill Laswell reflects on the New York-Tokyo connection behind next week’s Pit Inn shows

“There wasn’t a conscious effort to be back and forth from Japan, it just kind of fell in place,” bassist and producer Bill Laswell explains over the phone from his New York City home.

With a Fuji Rock Festival appearance by his Praxis trio followed earlier this month by a set from his Tabla Beat Science project at the True People’s Celebration, to be followed yet again next week when Laswell and fellow New York experimental musician John Zorn set up shop at jazz club Shinjuku Pit Inn, Laswell will have performed in Japan three times in less than two months.

Visits by the veteran downtown New York fixture to Pit Inn have been an annual affair in recent years, but this year’s flurry of invitations came out of the blue. “It was slow for a while but lately everyone is interested,” Laswell says. “It feels to me that there’s more interest and possibilities for live performance than ever now.”

Laswell and Zorn began their annual residencies at Pit Inn a few years ago as a means for them to gig with the many Japanese musicians they had gotten to know through years of interaction. Laswell had been coming to Japan regularly since 1983 both to perform and for production work, and had always made an effort to get out to the clubs to acquaint himself with what he describes as a vital Japanese underground music scene. Zorn himself was an on-and-off resident of the country for some years. Many of the Japanese musicians, meanwhile, had either lived in New York or toured there over the years.

Laswell’s and Zorn’s Tokyo Rotation residency pairs them with some of Japan’s more colorful improvisers. The gigs have gone so well in recent years that Laswell and Zorn this year decided to expand what had been a two-day event into a five-night extravaganza. “We started out doing it just for fun, and to collaborate with musicians in Japan,” offers Laswell. “Then it kind of turned into something that could be a little more developed when we saw that we were getting a good audience.

Bassist and producer Bill Laswell has been following Japan's underground music since 1983

“The place is very small, and it’s interesting to play in small places after playing to a festival audience. Something happens between the audience and musicians in a small venue, and it’s always fun to do that.”

The five nights match Laswell and Zorn with a shifting cast of musicians that includes iconoclastic trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, laptop guru Ikue Mori, and free-thinking drummer from Rovo, Hideo Yamaki, just to name a few. The third night serves as a CD release party for yet another Laswell-Japan project, Soup, a trio with experimental guitarist Yoshihide Otomo and drummer Yasuhiro Yoshigaki.

Laswell says the challenge—and the reward—at Pit Inn is to come up with something different each night. “It’s totally improvised: the idea is to try and develop different languages and sub-languages within these groups. So there is in a sense a repertoire, but it’s improvised, and because it’s improvised it has the potential to go places no one would expect.”

Long known as a wide-ranging musician and improviser who pushes musical boundaries, Laswell, 49, has been in the public eye since the early ’80s for his work with musical melting-pot units like Material, his instantly recognizable subterranean bass playing on albums for Mick Jagger and Peter Gabriel, and for his groundbreaking work as a producer of over 700 albums such as, among others, Herbie Hancock’s electro smash hit, Sound-System, which won him a Grammy.

Laswell says being an improviser allows him to approach his production work, which most recently included a Sting song for the Olympic soundtrack, in unorthodox ways. “The live playing—because so much is improvised—I think is a really good influence on the production, because you find yourself not treating recorded music so differently. You have the option to do it again or arrange it differently, but I think it’s good to keep it fresh. It adds a random element to it, which can make it interesting or exciting.”

Even with a project like Tabla Beat Science, which pairs him with masters of musical traditions such as Indian tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, Laswell eschews a studied approach. “I chose not to learn to play the music, in order to create a contrast. I don’t at all try to mimic what they do any more than the turntable is trying to be a tabla. So we try to make contrasts, and that’s what makes it an interesting group: everyone brings something different. I’m not someone who really studies music, I’m more interested in getting right to the interaction with the individuals.”

As much a musical “fixer” as he is bassist or producer, Laswell, through his many projects and record labels, tries to manifest a larger vision. “I think my priority is always going to be to try to expose certain music that was an influence or had value, or artists that haven’t always had the right opportunities. I’ve tried to create opportunities for people to make recordings and do concerts, and have been very conscious of introducing people who might be able to do something together or who might be able to come up with something new, no matter how different their backgrounds.”

Sep 22-26, 8 & 10pm, ¥5,000 (adv), ¥5,500 (door). Shinjuku Pit Inn. Tel: 03-3354-2024.

Photo credit: Slam Unagami


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