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Interviews

Jon Hassell: Fourth World and Balancing the North and South of You

By Published: May 4, 2009
Is It Jazz? Does It Matter? A History of Fourth World

Like so many musicians today, in a landscape where it's increasingly clear that having roots in the jazz tradition does not necessarily mean actually playing with strong references to that tradition, Hassell's Fourth World music has grown out of a rich, multidisciplinary background that brings together influences from an expanding range of cultural sources, the ever more sophisticated capabilities that modern technology permits and a fervent desire to appeal to both the head and the heart—The North and South of You. "The word 'jazz' was never mentioned," Hassell enthuses. "I'm so pleased that The New Yorker just picked it up out of nowhere; it was a little review of the record and a preamble to the concert at Zankel Hall. And I said, 'Imagine that someone was reading this, knowing it came from these places and the word jazz was never mentioned. I'd feel a lot of curiosity about it.' If the word jazz entered into it, I can imagine that the unknown person reading it would automatically [have] a whole picture of it—a whole gestalt of things would come to mind that would prevent them from being more curious about it.

"When you hear the word 'jazz,' immediately you've got a certain connotation," Hassell continues. "If you're not on the inside and know that it's a much broader category, you're just kind of like, 'Oh yeah, I've been there, done that.' If a piece were played on a classical station, saying 'This is the new Phillip Glass,' or the new this-or-that, of somebody from that world, I think it would be accepted, number one; and it would be a whole [different] group of listeners who could be enticed to buy the record, number two.

"I look at it this way," he continues. "First of all, I grew up in America. I grew up where jazz comes from. It's in the air and in the bloodstream. But if I were looking at the world's music from a more objective viewpoint—outer space or something—I'd say: 'Well, jazz is this music over here. And so to leave it out, if I'm really listening to all the flavors, let's say, from all the places, then to leave that out would be crazy. First of all, it's in my bloodstream. And jazz, itself, is a hybrid, a musical hybrid. It is the collision of African and American—actually African and European, as translated through an American sensibility. So that's why the references are there, and the general feeling of latter-day jazz manifestations à la Gil Evans and Miles.

Jon Hassell"At the same time," Hassell continues, "it was a strange learning process for me—I think I've used the phrase before about parachuting into the jazz world and not having hacked my way through the jungle to whatever center there might be. When I studied, I'm in Memphis, I hear things, I'm blown away as a kid by hearing Stan Kenton
Stan Kenton
Stan Kenton
1911 - 1979
piano
and the big improvising orchestra coming—a string section, five trumpets, five trombones, five saxophones, with Maynard Ferguson
Maynard Ferguson
Maynard Ferguson
1928 - 2006
trumpet
screaming on top. That was the most thrilling thing I'd ever heard in my life. Not that I didn't know—my parents would let me drive the car if I would go to church on Sunday. But what I'd do is just park and listen to the radio. And I remember Kenton coming on, and I thought, 'Wow! This is amazing. I've never heard this before.'

"So I have a much longer treatise to write about," continues Hassell, "in some sense, what it is that presets an ear—our sensibility to listen to big, thick chords; to the lush harmonies that came via [Maurice] Ravel, [Claude] Debussy and Impressionism, coming through people like Gil [Evans] and the tradition of using it and translating it in urban terms, the harmonic language of Impressionism. So I've come up through that, I go to school, I'm in Eastman School of Music, I'm studying orchestral trumpet playing, orchestral excerpts and trying to learn "Petrushka" solos and things like that, and [Igor] Stravinsky, at least 'Histoire du soldat.' And I'm kind of slated towards orchestral playing. But then I'm a composer, I'm not really there for trumpet; I'm there in composition basically. Actually, at that point, it was probably for both.

"So I'm in the kind of wild wing of composition," Hassell concludes, "Eastman Music was not exactly a hotbed of revolutionary activity, so we were the ones that were listening to [Anton] Webern and [Arnold] Schoenberg—all the 12-tone guys and all that. So then I get married, I have to go in the army. I go in the army band in Washington. I study musicology and get everything up to a Ph.D. in musicology, like going over to the Library of Congress and translating Gregorian Chants. Then I started reading these magazines from Europe—The Rogue, in German, that [Karlheinz] Stockhausen put out—all the articles about Stockhausen and Luciano Berio. And I start making little electronic collages because I hear Stockhausen's early etudes—the earliest electronic music on Deutsche Grammophon."

In the context of this intrepidly experimental environment, Hassell would come to a concept that would affect everything to come. "So I started making little things with tapes and collages," Hassell describes. "I remember one of the first things I ever did was to take a big thick chord sung by the Hi-Lo's, and kind of slice up that chord—we're talking splicing tape here—and making a cubist mash-up of the chord. Call it early sampling, when you're basically just recording a piece of something and with tape manipulation you're playing around [with it].

"So I go off to Europe, where I studied with Stockhausen for a couple of years," Hassell continues. "My wife was a pianist and she falls into that scene of playing Stockhausen at recitals and things like that. In the meantime, someone brings over The Beatles
The Beatles
The Beatles

band/orchestra
and says, 'Hey, listen to this, this is cool.' One of the scores I did was to take a Schoenberg piece and chop it up and have these little electronic devices—basically mixes that had a little keyboard on it so that the players were playing this sample of altered strings as softly as they could (you couldn't hear them on stage without amplification), so every time somebody plays the keyboard or hits one of the little nodes on the keyboard, then suddenly what they were playing would come to the fore.

Jon Hassell"I learned a lot from Stockhausen, in terms of listening to sound and notating things," concludes Hassell. "One of the exercises he used to give us was to play little bursts of shortwave radio with all the static and noise and everything and say, 'Notate it in terms of statistical methods.' You're talking about a string section and you've got 20 players and you say, 'Everybody play these notes pizzicato, at this rate: 10 within 1 second or 10 within 10 seconds,' or something like that. They're like textural composition, and so I get behind where all the notes are coming from with Stockhausen. Then I come back to State University of New York at Buffalo where there was a thing called Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. And Lukas Foss, who recently passed away, was the head of that. And the thing there was to be a composer and a performer. You had to have both."

Following the composition of "Solid State," an unexpected experience in Rome substantially changed Hassell's world view. "Lamonte Young and I did a performance in Rome and I heard [Indian vocal master Pandit] Pran Nath warming up. He was also doing a concert in the series there. I was warming up, I was playing these patterns; I had been sort of experimenting with a wah-wah pedal and all that, à la Miles from that period [early '70s]. And I was playing these patterns and Pran Nath heard me warming up; and so I heard him and he heard me and he took these patterns and started spinning them off. And I thought, 'Wow! That's cool.' So then I started studying. Raga was just raga to me. It was music from another place and I had no idea of how it was formed and shaped and what the ethos of it was. So then I started studying. I started studying with the trumpet, first singing and then trying to apply it to trumpet. Basically I had to pull away and kind of unlearn everything and start from there."

From unlearning old habits to innovating new ones, Hassell deserted strict composition and focused on active performance—and the creation of the building blocks for Fourth World music. "David Rosenboom, who is now the dean of music at Cal Arts, was another of the fellows at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo," says Hassell. "He had since become director of the electronic music studio at New York University and he invited me to come there and do something. So I went there and that's when we did Vernal Equinox with the people that were around at that point. That's when I met Michael Brook, the technician in the studio. He played guitar also, so then I started developing that he would be engineer on Vernal Equinox.

"I tried to apply this raga thing and the trumpet stuff that I had learned," concludes Hassell, "pulling in things around me that—instead of the tambura, [I used] an electronic drone, for example, and using a different kind of drumming along with it, which is what Vernal Equinox is. We did a concert in the Art Gallery of Ontario, I think it was, with Michael, who had since come on stage and started playing combinations of mixing live and playing guitar. And so he would grab a second or so with this early [Lexicon] Prime Time [delay] and throw it back into the mix. That is 'Griot (Over "Contagious Magic")'—it's a little four-minute piece, and I think it's probably the first live sampling, though I'll leave that to the music historians."

Vernal Equinox was Hassell's first Fourth World album, but his trumpet tone—a mix of almost shakuhachi-like richness/air and harmonizing that gave it vertical depth—evolved in leaps and bounds by the time he began to work with Brian Eno and a young Daniel Lanois
Daniel Lanois
Daniel Lanois
b.1951
guitar
, at Lanois' Hamilton, Canada Grant Avenue Studio.

Eno and Hassell found themselves at Grant Avenue Studio mainly because it was cheap—though as a result of an enticing hourly rate, Lanois quickly made a name for himself and forged a relationship with Eno that continues to this day as a mega-producer for artists including U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
b.1941
composer/conductor
and Neville Brothers, not to mention a string of fine solo albums including Acadie (Red Floor, 1989) and, more recently, Here Is What Is (Red Floor, 2007). Hassell recorded Dream Theory In Malaysia there, the follow-up to Possible Musics, which thrust Hassell into a greater spotlight. Both discs shook the world of those who were listening—a significant evolution over Vernal Equinox and, even more, Earthquake Island (Tomato, 1979), which teamed Hassell with more clearly defined jazz musicians including bassist Miroslav Vitous
Miroslav Vitous
Miroslav Vitous
b.1947
bass
, guitarist Ricardo Silveira and percussionists Dom Um Romao
Dom Um Romao
1925 - 2005
percussion
and Nana Vasconcelos
Nana Vasconcelos
Nana Vasconcelos
b.1944
percussion
for something that, while still part of Hassell's overall oeuvre, was more overtly ethnic than anything that had come before, or would follow after.

Jon HassellStill, the innovations of Vernal Equinox continue to be part of Hassell's musical palette, even to this day. "On the title piece [to Vernal Equinox, I was] coming fresh off of a lot of this raga thing that I was trying to do when I was in exile in California," explains Hassell. "And so I am playing a lot of bendy things and kind of raga lines and things that I don't really do anymore. I'm not so tuned into that anymore, but I can still pull it out of the box and make a few little moves in that direction, but as far as consistently trying to be raga-like, which is also on Possible Musics on the track called 'Charm (Over "Burundi Cloud").' And I was a lot more into that then.

"Brian may have been working on other things of his own too [while Hassell was working on Possible Musics, which was recorded in New York at Celestial Sounds], "continues Hassell. "So it was more like my being given my free rein to hang myself—given enough rope to hang myself or not. So that's much more my kind of quirky hand in those projects—willful entrance in the process and playing on various things.

"This goes back to the jazz thing now," he continues, "the fact that I learned about shape-making. It's what raga is about; it's about making a beautiful shape in air. I call it calligraphy in sound. So that opened my eyes to things that I'd merely appreciated before, from a vibe point of view. Now, when I hear a Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
Johnny Hodges
1907 - 1970
sax, alto
solo or a Jimmy Scott phrasing of Joao Gilberto
Joao Gilberto
Joao Gilberto
b.1931
vocalist
phrase or something like that, I think about this idea of shape-making, an obvious connection to Hodges, whose solos are like they are being squeezed out of a tube of toothpaste. Everything is connected; all the microtonal shape-making and everything that belongs to raga.

"Even at Eastman I was listening to African music," he continues, "and went further into that, becoming familiar with Pygmy music and Gamelan—my sort of three-legged stool: raga, Pygmy and Gamelan, that showed up on Aka-Darbari-Java (Editions EG, 1983). So I'm seeing my connection to jazz as from this kind of fugal lens, after having been brought up in the cradle of it, so to speak, and having it in my ears and in my blood, as a kind of external thing. I wasn't trying to be Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
and I wasn't trying to be Miles, really. Although at one point I probably would have accepted that.

"Then I came to the stages like passing through the educational formations," Hassell concludes. "It's like passing through this formation stage and then seeing those other things. Seeing jazz from that point of view made me appreciate all the subtlety of other kinds of music—it didn't make any difference whether it was labeled classical or popular or blues or jazz or whatever the label was. It just makes you look at everything through that lens. So I am very, very close to—just to bring it right down home—what have I been listening to in the last few days, almost constantly."

Hassell's music may not speak the language of jazz directly, but it possesses its spirit, and he continues to listen to it as a reference source to evolve his own music, which is imbued with a sensual quality that's hard to deny. "A friend of mine in Germany—Karl Lippegaus, who does these great radio shows mixing classical and popular and everything—sent me this 1981 recording of [Antonio Carlos] Antonio Carlos Jobim
Antonio Carlos Jobim
Antonio Carlos Jobim
1927 - 1994
piano
, who was about 54 at that time, playing solo and singing, just him and his piano, singing in the Belo Horizontes in Brazil, singing all these great Brazilian songs that we've all come to know, like the so-called 'Girl from Ipanema' and 'Desafinado,' which have these incredible lyrics that no one really knows about. I've been listening to that almost continually for the last couple of days. And I'm thinking, what is there about these things that I love—why can't I do some of this? And I've been very ballsy earlier before about making some point and early in the Marial Festival invitation they asked what I'd like to do and I actually mentioned, 'Gee, it would be great if I could do something with Joao Gilberto
Joao Gilberto
Joao Gilberto
b.1931
vocalist
.' I hope it happens. I love Mariel and I love the festival—I love being there."

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