Bill Laswell's Koln
Recorded in Paris, February 12, 1986
Opening with a rumbling of bass and drums, I quickly realized this was not just any old record, rather I had stumbled across a noisy saxophone-infested power jazz classic. Last Exit is the improvisational supergroup of Peter Brotzman, Bill Laswell, Sonny Sharrock, and Ronald Shannon Jackson. Normally "supergroup" conjures up images of washed-up in-debt has-beens searching for the spark and the money they once had. Thankfully, these guys have tossed that stereotype right into the trash can. This is the album that originally made me realize that there's more to jazz than wimpy new age feel-good softcore wonk.
Mike Burma (courtesy of the Browbeat website)
In the mid-'80s, Bill Laswell had a great idea. Why not combine rock's raging rhythms and volume with free improvisation's unfettered creativity and ferocity? To this end, he made three inspired choices to fill out his band. Drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson was a veteran of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time ensemble as well as a past member of Cecil Taylor's volcanic mid-'70s bands. Sonny Sharrock had burst onto the scene in the late '60s with Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, and others, establishing a unique approach to free electric guitar playing, only to retreat from the scene before being lured out of retirement by Laswell. The wild card was German saxophone behemoth Peter Brotzmann, known for his classic, shatteringly intense album Machine Gun from 1968 as well as multitudes of subsequent recordings where a premium was placed on visceral, gut-wrenching interplay among musicians. Mix these elements together and Laswell (with his own funky, dub-heavy electric bass anchoring the proceedings) had an incendiary formula, one that perhaps couldn't hold together long but, while it did, it produced some amazingly powerful music. Never was this more in evidence than on this first, self-titled release, one of the very finest albums of the '80s. Entirely improvised, Last Exit nonetheless based most of its pieces on blues forms, even if highly abstracted. This bedrock allowed the musicians, particularly Brotzmann and Sharrock (whose early death in 1994 would cancel any possibility, however tenuous at that point, of the group's continuation) to freely explore the outer boundaries of their instruments, sublimely soaring over the down to earth and dirty rhythm team of Laswell and Jackson. This tension, strongly shown on the first four tracks here, reached almost unbearable degrees; its release when they would slide back into a groove leaves the listener utterly drained. Subsequent albums (notably Koln) would come close to attaining this level of intensity and creativity, but Last Exit ranks as a pinnacle both in Laswell's career and in the rock/free improv genre it spawned. A classic release, one that should be in the collection of anyone interested in either contemporary free improvisation or the more creative branches of rock.
- Brian Olewnick (All Music Guide)
========= from the cover ==========
A Lexicon Of Lightning
"True art casts nets towards the future, celebrates and mourns. It invents prayers and weapons. It does not whimper or cower or throw up its hands and bat its lashes... It strikes like lightning, or is lightning, whichever."
- John Gardner
Originally scheduled for release in 1988, as a companion volume to "Cassette Recordings '87", "Last Exit: Koln" should have been on the market before the studio record "Iron Path", but communication problems (to put it politely) between Bill Laswell and the Enemy label left it locked in limbo. Set loose at last, it is a record of extraordinary power and concision. It is, to extend Gardner's analogy, a lexicon of lightning, making improvisation vivid in jagged, flashing, flaring soundbursts... If there is a way to discuss Last Exit with proper critical distance and "objectivity" I confess that I haven't tried to find it. The group's lustral, emotion-loaded music - and indeed, the savage volume level at which it is administered - rules out neutral fence-sitting. You're either tar these musicians and the directions they represent, or against them, it seems to me. Indifference is not an option. Personally, I still consider the group's emergence a sort of 7th-Cavalry-to-the-rescue scene in the final reel of The Story Of Free Jazz (an image often underlined by the call-to-arms of Shannon Jackson's snare drum and Brotzmann's charging horns.)
What is surely clear is that, by the mid 80s, the kind of free improvisation whose outstanding characteristic was its tenuousness had really had its day. Poking around aimlessly in the hope of finally stumbling upon the music - this was to prove bankrupt procedure over-documented on records nobody listened to. There remains a coterie of pioneer improvisors making notable free music (hello Evan, Derek) but, in the last few years, most exponents of purely "abstract" improvisation have thrown in the towel and looked for ways to structure their material. And scores and music stands and, amusingly, conductors, are back with us in a big way.
Last Exit found another way out of the impasse without giving the problem a second thought. In their group improvisations "structure" is inherent in the way Jackson and Laswell approach rhythm, working with pulses and rotating patterns, pushing time around. Though Shannon's prone to describe his music as "just the Texas blues", his kaleidoscopic playing embraces drum history. Shuffle rhythms and backbeats, martial rhythms, bop accents, African beats, heavy rock and more make their appearance, often simultaneously. Playing two rhythms at once, "a martial beat in one hand, a funk beat in the other", for example, is part of this master musician's standard methodology. "I don't play 'time'," Shannon told down beat's Charles Doherty, "I take rhythm as a source of time."
Bill Laswell is, firstly, a rock musician. The most enlightened and open-minded one I've ever met, admittedly, but his background continues to influence his creative decisions. He's become a completely original improvisor, a great improvisor in my opinion, but still feels a responsibility to play with the drummer and to rein in the music's farthest-flung weirdnesses, periodically returning it to the beat, thus giving Last Exit a coherence and solidity other so-called avant garde outfits often lack. "I follow Shannon," Laswell says simply, but the relationship is by no means one-sided.
Both rhythm section men, to use that quaint old term, are impatient of the digressive, dithering solo, and the urgency of their playing lights fires beneath Sonny Sharrock and Peter Brotzmann, compels them to play in the moment, no time left to consider a "tasteful" response.The music moves too fast for such niceties. (Sharrock: "Artists cannot be hampered by the restriction of taste. We're way beyond that.") The opening seconds of "Hard School" bear witness to this. Saxophonist and guitarist are sent reeling by the galloping rhythm, but speedily find the shape of the piece in the process of playing it, instincts honed by the roadwork behind them. If the earliest Last Exit concerts were indiscrimately volcanic, spewing up a fair amount of bubbling mud along with the incandescent gems (in ratio not always unrelated to pre-gig beer-flow), within a year the quartet had become very precise, tight on its own terms, and everything in this Koln performance has a hard-edged clarity, real definition and dynamics. (Then again, this also has something to do with soundboard personnel learning to deal with the loudness.) At the very beginning, Last Exit were layering sound upon sound, frenetically "filling up all the holes", as Albert Ayler once instructed Shannon, playing flat-out all the way Here, in contrast, silence also has a (limited) role to play - framing, for example, the bass and drums joust that develops after the first climax and offsetting Brotzmann's subsequent unaccompanied feature. The terrible beauty of the music, of course, attains its most potent power in the convulsive turmoil of the ensemble playing. Listen to the deep, harrowing soulfulness of Laswell's melodic bassline beneath Brotzmann's yowling, agonizedly fervent lament on "Last Call", then marvel at the way Jackson and Sharrock pivot the piece towards a triumphant conclusion. From mourning to celebration in a single breath. All life is here, or as much of it as matters.
We're fortunate to have five Last Exit albums now (six, if one includes the recent Enemy compilation), to be able to follow the unfolding of this epic story, each step of the way presenting some of the most vital music of the age, each volume a dramatic improvement on a blueprint that was pretty damn magnificent in itself.
(With luck, the DAT recordings made on the very different-sounding autumn '89 tour will find an outlet soon...)
"You know, I really feel the Exit quartet is getting stronger all the time," Peter Brotzmann said last year. "We've been through our 'power-playing' period. I don't want to be typecast as just a 'blaster.' Now the shit is really wide open. It can go anywhere. The interaction is getting to be very sensitive - though I'm sure there'll always be some of the good old passion and violence. But there's a lot of potential still to be explored, and I hope we get the chances to explore it."
- Sfere Lake April 1st, 1990