BILL LASWELL

MATERIAL, A BAND OF MANY FACES

by Robert Palmer, The New York Times - May 1, 1981

 

 

For a rock group with a particularly solid-sounding name, Material is curiously elusive. Sometimes this increasingly influential band, which has been singled out as one of New York's most original new groups by critics in this country and abroad, appears as a trio; sometimes it's a quintet. Tomorrow night at the Bond International Casino, it will be a four or five piece group with the pioneering free-jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock as principal soloist.

On records like its recently released "Temporary Music Compilation" (on the French Celluloid label), Material has sounded something like a progressive-rock band with jazz leanings; with Mr. Sharrock on guitar, they sound more like a blizzard of shattering glass with a rock backbeat. Members of Material have recently been involved in even more diverse projects, ranging from a disco-funk record with the singer Nona Hendryx to meditative electronic-music with the composer and technical innovator Brian Eno, and punk rock with Richard Hell and the Voidoids.

"We've got a lot of directions to pursue" Bill Laswell, Material's bassist, said the other day. "We do get involved in quite a few projects, and we like bringing different people into Material. It's healthy for us as players, and it's a way of exposing good musicians to new audiences. But even though were fluid, we definitely are a band. And since whatever we play tends to have a strong pulse to it, I'd say we're a rock Band.

Mr. Laswell grew up in Detroit, and played with a number of disco-funk bands before arriving in New York City in 1978, where he met Michael Beinhorn, who plays synthesizer and manipulates pre-recorded tapes, and the drummer Fred Maher. These three first played together in a group called the Zu Band, but by summer '79 they were working as Material, with Cliff Cultreri, as the first of several guitarists to pass through the ranks.

Mr. Laswell is the most experienced member of the band. "Fred is just 18," he said, "and Michael is 20. But when I first met them, they bad this energy and attitude I was interested in."

The word "energy" crops up frequently in Mr. Laswell's conversation. It was energy that originally attracted him to Sonny Sharrock, who first recorded with Pharoah Sanders and other jazz musicians during the middle and late 1960's. Mr. Laswell played with Mr. Sharrock in a trio before introducing him to the other members of Material.

"Sonny is part of the band," Mr. Laswell maintained. "When Fred, Michael and I play with him, the four of us get a band sound that's definitely recognizable. It's really a challenge to work with him. When I was 15, he was my favorite guitar player, and he's been playing the way many of the new-wave rock guitarists play, and he has a lot of power."

But Material has also featured the English guitar experimentalist Fred Frith, the jazz trumpeter Olu Dara, and the saxophonists Byard Lancaster and Henry Threadgill among others. How can a band pursue such a revolving door policy and still be a band?

"Playing with really strong musicians changes our playing," Mr. Laswell responded. "We improvise and play off one another. We may sound somewhat different, depending on who's playing with us, but to me, that's an advantage. Most rock bands sound the same every time."

Tomorrow night's show at Bond's should prove particularly interesting. Material and the explosive Mr. Sharrock will play first, and they will be followed by the guitarist James (Blood) Ulmer, whose fusing of freeform jazz and dancable funk and rock rhythms has influenced a number of New York bands and paralells Material's experiments along simlar lines. Mr. Ulmer, who is both a jazz musician and a popular performer in New York's rock clubs, recently signed a contract with Columbia Records. It seems that the fusing of exploratory jazz-disco-funk and punk rock that has been shaping up in Manhattan during the last few years, is finally going to get national exposure.

Material is also involved in several recording projects for major-distributed labels. Tbe band's single with Nona Hendryx, who was formerly with the popular vocal Group La Belle, will be released by Ze Records within a month, and all three of of Material's core members, as well as Olu Dara, have appeared on what is expected to be Brian Eno's next album.

"We were interested in working with the larger record companies,but we donít want to commit everything we do to any one company," Mr. Laswell explained. "A year ago we took a loft in Brooklyn and began building our own studio, which is now fully operational. We recorded with Nona Hendryx and Brian Eno there, and we've had other sessions, including a really interesting mix of musicians recording for the American Clave label."

The American Clave sessions included three generations of jazz saxophonists, two atonal guitarists, veteran Latin percussionists and other musicians.

"Having our own studio helps us stay independent of record companies," Mr. Laswell added. "We don't have to ask them to pay for studio time or to underwrite our recording sessions, and we keep our options open. We want to keep making dance music, but we also want to make music that isn't as commercial, some free-form improvising, maybe a big band at some point. Recording all these projects is the most important thing to us right now, but we're going to be performing around town once a month or so,and we hope to play some places besides the rock clubs. At the same time, exposing rock audiences to people like Sonny Sharrock and Olu Dara, has been really worthwhile, and we want to continue doing that."

Jazz musicians have worked in groups with constantly shifting personel for years, but Material's approach is new to rock. Will it work in the long run? Mr. Laswell noted that so far, the members of Material have been able to keep their various projects going simueltaeously with a minimum of conflict, and the groups work with Mr. Eno and other well-known musicians is generating a certain commercial momentum.

"As for the future," Mr. Laswell said, "We'll just work with as many musicians as we can. There's really no end to the people we can add to Material, and no end to what we can do."