Monday, March 30, 2009

Return To The Fourth World

While you won't find trumpeter/composer Jon Hassell listed in the major jazz encyclopedias or discographies, the 62-year-old Memphis native is as much a sonic pioneer as many you will find in those pages, and he forms an important part of the lineage that includes Miles Davis, Bill Laswell, Graham Haynes, Bill Frisell and numerous European improvisers. He is also firmly entrenched in the sonic world that includes disparate artists like Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Daniel Lanois and Ry Cooder, all of whom he has collaborated with at some point.

Originally enamored of serial music, which he explored in early work with Terry Riley and La Monte Young, Hassell delved into traditional Indian music around the time that Davis was adding tabla and sitar to his band, and by the end of the 1970s he was mixing in electronic elements, at just the right time to intersect with open-minded popular artists like Eno and Talking Heads' David Byrne. Labeling the result Fourth World music now smacks a little too much like a marketing ploy, but there is no question that Hassell was on to something.

In a recent interview with DownBeat magazine, the trumpeter muses on his lack of popularity in North America, but while he hasn't been the concert draw here that he is in Europe, his sound has permeated through soundtracks for vehicles like Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ and the TV show The Practice.

Hassell's 1986 ECM recording, Power Spot, marks a high point in his career, and is a rarity in the German label's catalogue: the only ECM disc made in the Hamilton, Ontario, recording studio of Daniel Lanois. Now, after 23 years, Hassell returns to ECM for the evocatively named Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street (a line from a poem by the Sufi master Jalaluddin Rumi). The music is as evocative as Rumi's sensual image, filled with washes of electronic sound, the whispery violin of Kheir-Eddine M'Kachiche, and shot through with flat-toned bass ostinatos that tie it all back to Davis' swampy electric music, Laswell's Cuban dub experiments and even to Sly Stone's drugged-out masterpiece There's A Riot Goin' On. This is hypnotic, compelling music, and the sonic pool is deep – particularly Hassell's trumpet, which is processed to sound like a breathy flute, and sings with amazing grace and beauty.

I can't recall the last time I enjoyed music so much through headphones.

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