Miles Davis (Mixed by Bill Laswell)Panthalassa: The Music of Miles Davis 1969-1974
Released 1998 on Sony
Reviewed by Joe Kenney, 26/03/2008ce
Unlike the Marley dub mix, Laswell didn’t go to such mixing extremes with Miles’ music. Instead, Laswell wanted to improve the mix itself. He gave multiple interviews at the time, always stating that Teo Macero, Miles’ original producer, never understood HOW to produce Miles’ music during this period. Macero, a jazz and classical producer, didn’t get all the new rhythms in Miles’ music, didn’t realize he should bring up the bass, give everything more of a production befitting funk music – which is what Miles was recording by that point, not jazz.
So, using safety copies of the original multitracks, Laswell had his pick of the litter. Choosing the material he wanted to include on his “reconstruction & remix,” Laswell went about fashioning the perfect Electric Miles album. Not only is this the best introduction to this period of Miles’ career, but it also stands as the most unified statement of the entire Electric Miles era.
Laswell added no instrumentation of his own. Everything on the album was recorded by Miles and his various groups. Laswell instead moved things around, added effects here and there, and generally just improved the mixes. Even compared to the official remasters which came out a few years after this, in 2000, Laswell’s mixes in most cases sound better. Just compare the brittle “Black Satin” from the 2000 “On the Corner” remaster with Laswell’s mix, which opens track 2 of Panthalassa. Laswell’s version is superior, not just in sonic quality, but in the quality of the mix itself.
Panthalassa opens with the entire “In a Silent Way” album condensed into one glorious, 15-minute mix. Laswell takes the ambience of the original and focuses it into a coherent track which has a definite beginning, middle, and end, with a central theme occurring at the opening and closing. He adds in some guitar recorded during the session but unreleased on the original album, and also adds sound effects and treatment to the stand-up bass, making it sound like an electric bass. This is the jazziest track on Panthalassa, and in truth it predates the funkier, more experimental material which the Electric Miles would become known for. Again, Laswell’s mix brings an extra punch to the proceedings. The rhythm track is more concrete and apparent, and the whole song, despite the original’s ambience, just grooves.
The next track is a 16-minute movement of “On the Corner”-era material. Skipping over “Bitches Brew,” “Live-Evil,” and “Jack Johnson,” Laswell goes straight for 1972’s “On The Corner,” the album he considers “mutant hip-hop.” Of all the Macero-produced originals Laswell complained about, he was hardest on this one. You can see his point, of course; despite the greatness of “On the Corner,” you can tell an even better album is lurking within the poorly-mixed din of jungle rhythms, polyrhythmic drums, and scraping guitars and sitars. Laswell proves this with the first part of this movement, “Black Satin.” As mentioned earlier, here the song has an extra zap which is missing in the original. The beats kick in and Miles’ wah-wah’d horn blares overtop; once heard, you will have this horn melody stuck in your head for DAYS. The track then segues into “What If,” an unnamed song recorded during the “On the Corner” sessions. Laswell titled this song thusly because he wondered, “What if that’s Pete Cosey on guitar?” Not having any session information in front of him, Laswell didn’t realize that the song was recorded two years before Cosey even joined Miles’ group – it’s McLaughlin on that mean and distorted guitar. The track opens with several distorted notes (the last of which is given a dubbed-out echo in a brilliant move by Laswell) and proceeds to shake and rattle for six minutes, acid-rock guitar notes courtesy John McLaughlin cascading about the sound spectrum. For some reason it makes me think of music that would be playing on some street corner on a Tattoine-type planet, blue-skinned, afro’d aliens glaring at you over fat joints of Venusian ganja. From there the track segues into “Agharta Prelude Dub,” another unnamed track which Laswell titled himself for Panthalassa. He chose this name because the horn melody in this track is the same as that which occurs twenty minutes into the song “Prelude,” on “Agharta;” though here, in its studio incarnation, the track is slower, more subdued. And here it’s also lacking Pete Cosey, who played the song on the “Agharta” album; here it’s Reggie Lucas on guitar, the song recorded shortly after his tenure with Miles began, and before Cosey joined. Lucas was a great guitarist, to this day not getting his due despite the (albeit belated) accolades showered upon Cosey. But even with Lucas on the 6-string, this studio take lacks the ferocity of its live counterpart.
Track 3 is a fifteen-minute chunk of “Rated X” and “Billy Preston,” both tracks originally from the “Get Up With It” album. And again, despite his name appearing in the credits on the CD cover, Pete Cosey does not appear on EITHER of these songs. Sadly, Pete Cosey is not featured on a single track on this entire album; all of the material Laswell chose to manipulate predates Cosey’s tenure with the group. “Rated X” was recorded shortly after the “On The Corner” sessions, and again features Reggie Lucas on distorted, choppy guitar, though he’s overshadowed by Miles – who isn’t on trumpet, but instead “plays” the keyboards. As Julian Cope mentioned in his superb Miles Davis essay here on Unsung, Miles’ approach to this instrument basically involved putting on a pair of oven mitts and mashing down on the keys. “Rated X” is an intolerable din of noise in any mix, though Laswell’s is slightly better than the original. What draws the listener in is the aggressive, funky rhythm track, which of course Laswell brings up in the mix. On “Get Up With It” this track has most listeners running for the volume control, or for the eject button; this mix is abrasive, but bridges a gap between heavy metal and funk that would appeal to most modern listeners. “Rated X” segues into the easy funk of “Billy Preston,” which is much shortened here from its “Get Up With It” incarnation; other than that, I’ve never been able to discern HOW Laswell’s mix differs from the original. Sounds the same to me.
Panthalassa concludes with a fourteen-minute condensation of “He Loved Him Madly,” another “Get Up With It” track that’s almost thirty-three minutes long in its original mix. To reiterate again to the point of redundancy, Pete Cosey does not play on this song, either. Even though he’s listed as a player on this track, Cosey himself has stated that he didn’t play a note on it. This is because he arrived late to the session, and the group had already started performing. Reggie Lucas and Dominique Gaumont sharing lead guitar duties (Gaumont was a young French kid who played guitar with Miles’ group in 1974 only; that’s him shredding like Hendrix on disc 2 of “Dark Magus”), Cosey felt he would only hinder the proceedings, so provided the group with “spiritual vibes” as they played. Laswell fixes up this track proper. The original is an overlong ambient throb that never really begins or ends. Laswell mixes in a heavy beat, adds some guitar and some echoed effects. This succeeds in making the track seem half its length (even though it’s, well, already half its original length), and also has you nodding your head throughout.
A “Remixes” CD was released after Panthalassa, but it wasn’t very good, other than Laswell’s sole contribution: a seventeen-minute “Subterranean Channel Mix” of “On The Corner.” Again returning to his favorite Miles album, Laswell stretches “Black Satin” out through most of the track, also incorporating various themes, notes, and textures from the rest of the album. This is a great remix, and goes hand in hand with the other four tracks on Panthalassa itself. The sole other notable remix comes courtesy of DJ Krush, who also mixes “On The Corner,” giving it a murky hip-hop sound. Only problem is, Krush’s mix is only available on the 2LP release of “Panthalassa: The Remixes” and the US promo CD; it is not contained on the regular CD release. I’m sure it can be found online, though.
The biggest regret with Panthalassa is that there was never a follow-up. Just hearing the material from this era, released in uncut form on the magnificent “Complete On The Corner Sessions” boxset, you can’t help but wonder what Laswell could do with such great stuff. I mean, the guy wanted to feature Cosey but was unable to; the “Sessions” boxset features a plethora of awe-inspiring material featuring Cosey (particularly the avant-metal funk of “What They Do”) that would make for perfect “Panthalassa II” fodder. I guess we can only hope.