Bill Laswell has accomplished many amazing things as a bassist, producer and impresario. One of his most impressive attributes is working with some of the planet's greatest musicians and providing them, rather than himself, a spotlight. This list includes Herbie Hancock, Sonny Sharrock, the Gnawa musicians of Morocco, Zakir Hussain, Simon Shaheen, Pharoah Sanders, Tony Williams, John Zorn, Peter Brötzmann and many others.
This post, however, concerns the project called Praxis, which actually started in the 1980s as an early effort in electronics by Laswell alone, but morphed into a group of musicians mashing up sounds from rock, dub, metal, funk and other areas into an invigorating series of recordings that have shifted greatly in personnel and instrumental emphasis (there is the occasional vocal on some of the records.)
The first album from 1992, Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis), was a brilliant first volley with drummer Brain (Primus), keyboard legend Bernie Worrell and bassist Bootsy Collins (from Parliament-Funkadelic, turntablist Af Next Man Flip (Jungle Brothers) and, most notably, guitarist Buckethead, whose frozen white mask and fried chicken bucket hat gave him a notoriety and mystery, but whose incredible speed and technique, particularly his shredding style, in playing the guitar are a wonder to behold (behear?)
As great as the musicians are generally and the lineups dramatically alter from record to record, the focus is usually on Buckethead, who is from the Bay Area and was in a band called the Deli Creeps before he hooked up with Laswell. A stint with Guns 'N Roses long after the classic early 90s records of that band may be his best-known gig, but he really has had some incredible highlights in the Praxis catalog.
There is probably no better showcase for his talents, though, than this live recording from the Bonnaroo Festival in the state and the year that comprise the title of this album released on ROIR (Reach Out International Records), which has been best known for its reggae and dub catalog. The festival's third run in 2004 featured Bob Dylan, Wilco, Patti Smith, Los Lobos, Steve Winwood, The Dead, My Morning Jacket, Kings of Leon, Burning Spear, Taj Mahal, David Byrne and lots of other great acts.
Praxis took the stage as a quartet with Laswell, Brain, Buckethead and Worrell in one of the tents in the early morning hours of the second of three days punctuated by massive rain torrents and ran through an eleven-song set that featured some moody experimental ambient pieces, a drum solo for Brain titled "Broken/Fractal," a feature piece in "Chopper" for Laswell, and a gutsy cover of Jimi Hendrix' "Machine Gun. A few of the highlights for YHB, though, are tracks three and four, "Night of the Slunk," and "Guitar Virus," because they give Buckethead the platform for the epitome of his astounding playing, the opening piece; "Vertebrae" because it shows a tight band moving on a fantastic bass line from Laswell, steady rhythms from Brain, nice shadings from Worrell and inventive, but restrained playing from Buckethead; and the atmospheric "Optic."
Tennessee 2004 was not released until three years after its creation, but it is an excellent vehicle for one of the most underappreciated improvisatory bands out there and special credit should be given to Oz Fritz for his remarkable recording of this festival performance and the engineering by long-time Laswell cohort Robert Mussi and his assistant James Dellatacoma. This is easily one of the best-produced live albums YHB has come across.
In 2007, Praxis recorded one more album, Profanation (Preparation for a Coming Darkness), which was released in Japan the following year, but didn't get an American distribution until Laswell's new M.O.D. Technologies issued it last year, after which the bassist pulled the plug on the project.
But, it was a great ride if it is over and other recordings by this great band will be focused here later.
Praxis: Tennessee 2004 (ROIR, 2007)
3. Night of the Slunk
4. Guitar Virus
5. Machine Gun
8. Bent Light