Friday, July 2, 2010

The Intersection: Jon Hassell

The Intersection is an occasional feature on JazzWrap that looks at artists that blend jazz with electronica (a tradition pioneered by none other than Miles Davis on such classic recordings as On The Corner and Bitches Brew).

Jon Hassell (trumpet; electronics)

There is no mistaking Jon Hassell for anyone else. His electronically treated trumpet sounds at times reptilian, but also like a desert wind through a narrow canyon. No other trumpet player sounds quite as primal as Hassell. He's tapped into something beyond our pedestrian notions of "ethnic" and "exotic". He's gone native, but you'd be hard pressed to say definitively what culture it is. Sure, there are tell-tale Javanese gamelan-isms and Afro-beat stutter steps, but there's nothin conventional about any of it. It's just Hassell.

But it's not just Hassell's trumpet that sound utterly otherworldly, its the rhythms and atmospherics surrounding it as well. The skittering percussion and pulsating synth textures overlap and interweave like a tapestry of a design indecipherable as it flutters in the gusts of his alien horn blasts.

Hassell, if you were hitherto unaware, is the avant-garde trumpeter best known for creating what he calls Fourth World music, an amalgamation of ethnic and contemporary classical musics. His sound is somewhat reminiscent of Miles Davis's Stockhausian moments during his early '70s fusion period, and while Hassell's muted tones deliver fragmented phrases much like Miles during that protean period, the similarity is superficial at best. While Miles was clearly tapping into his African heritage (as well as American funk) on albums like Agharta and Pangaea, Hassell is embracing something without clear borders. Don't get me wrong -- Miles' electric period is some deep shit -- but Hassell is into something deep and mysterious.

And yet... I can't help but associate various Hassell's albums with the work of other artists, specifically writers. Listen to Possible Musics, his 1980 collaboration with Brian Eno, while reading J.G. Ballard's early environmental disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Crystal World) and you'll swear it was recorded for that purpose. Listen to his 1986 album Power Spot while reading just about anything by Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky, The Delicate Prey) and you will be convinced that Hassell was reading about expatriates living and dying in Morocco while recording it.

Best of all, Hassell keeps making music true to his original vision. If you haven't discovered his "fourth world" yet, you owe it to yourself to do so... and while you're at it pick up the works of Paul Bowles and J.G. Ballard. You may find yourself wanting the test my theories for yourself.

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