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The idea of remixing jazz recordings—using studio technology to rearrange and reimagine the sound and structure of music originally recorded as discreet performances—might seem heretical to the notion of keeping true to the improvised moment, a central tenet of jazz. Yet, by the late 1960s, Miles himself regarded his studio tracks not as sacrosanct recordings, but as steps toward the final released product. One can divine his intention on various tracks on groundbreaking albums like In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970) that utilize studio techniques—layering separate tracks from different moments, looping a rhythmic section to establish a groove—that have become standard music production practice.
By the 1990s, digital technology was at a point that this cut-and-paste approach made revisiting older music both credible and in-tune with a more accepting sensibility; other jazz labels had opened their historic catalogs to hip-hop producers at the start of the of the decade. In 1997, Columbia Records granted Bill Laswell access to Miles’ original session masters to retell the music of Miles’ electric era as a remix project. Panthalassa—the name of the single superocean that surrounded the single continent of Pangea millions of years ago—was the title Laswell chose for a four-track double-disc album.
Laswell was an apt choice. He was well known for his electric bass playing as he was for his intense, genre-defying productions on his own Axiom label. Like Miles, his music and production approach dealt with layers of intensity and extended groove, of shadow and light, of what by then was a genre of its own: ambient music. Laswell remixed the original tracks and sutured different performances together—“In a Silent Way”/“Shhh/Peaceful”/“It’s About That Time”—to offer fresh perspectives without obscuring the original, emotional heart of the music.
Reviews were largely positive and while some questioned the latitude Laswell took, no one could argue with the musical results. One critic lauded him for “teasing out the music’s spiritual dimension”; another felt the album’s “most radical quality is the reverence that Laswell pays to his sources.” Laswell himself stated, “”no music is pure or sacred”—a point of view Miles himself shared.