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

John Kelman By

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Jazz is a musical hybrid. It is the collision of African and American--actually African and European, as translated through an American sensibility.
He may well be one of the most insidious influences in modern music. Trumpeter, composer and deep thinker Jon Hassell may not have the same name recognition as, say, Miles Davis, but his unmistakable approach to music—he calls it Fourth World music—has affected musicians around the globe, ranging from now friend/co-conspirator Brian Eno, British post-rock crooner David Sylvian and singer/songwriter Tim Elsenburg (aka Sweet Billy Pilgrim), to jazz-centric artists including trumpeters Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer and Matthias Eick, as well as guitarist Eivind Aarset, and samplers/producers Jan Bang and Erik Honoré.

Bang and Honoré are also the co-Artistic Directors of the increasingly well-known and itself influential Punkt Festival in Norway, a festival that has invited Hassell to attend three out of its four years and considers him to be its godfather. For them—and for every artist named above and countless others—there's a simple truth: while they would, no doubt, still be doing important work, it would be significantly different, without the immense effect of Hassell's unmistakable musical aesthetic.

Chapter Index
  1. A Career on the Move
  2. Public Conversation Pieces with Brian Eno
  3. Touring in 2009 with Maarifa Street
  4. Is It Jazz? Does It Matter? A History of Fourth World
  5. The Rhythm of the Groove
  6. Recording Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street for ECM
  7. Punkt
  8. DJ Hassell
  10. Choral Work
  11. Fourth World and Technology
  12. Self-Management
  13. Going Forward

A Career on the Move

While Hassell is best-known for his gradually evolving Fourth World music—a lifelong pursuit first documented on Vernal Equinox (Lovely Music, 1977), but making its first major international splash on Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics (Editions EG, 1980) and Fourth World Volume Two: Dream Theory in Malaysia (Editions EG, 1981), and evolving over the next three decades to the enigmatically named Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street (ECM, 2009)—he began his musical life in the company of minimalist progenitors La Monte Young and Terry Riley. He was one of the performers, in fact, on Riley's first (and, many feel, definitive) version of his classic, In C (CBS, 1968).

Before Hassell made the trumpet his primary focus—one uniquely colored by a combination of distinctive embouchure and electronic processing; still a trumpet, to be sure, but one that transcends all natural definitions to sound completely otherworldly—he was involved in creating electronic music like the sound sculpture "Solid State," which he performed for only the twelfth or so time since its inception, at Punkt 07. "That was the early '70s," says Hassell, "based on my knowledge of Terry [Riley], and the fact that there was an early Moog in the electronic studio there [State University of New York, in Buffalo]. So I made that piece, "Solid State," and at first I had these sounds going [sings] ba-ba-ba-pi, ba-ba-ba-pi, ba-ba-ba-pi, ba-ba-ba-pi— à la [Philip] Glass, [Steve] Reich, etc. And then Terry gave me the inside story on where Steve Reich came from in terms of his being influenced by—or appropriating, shall we say—certain parts of Terry's music back in San Francisco before they came to New York. So Terry said, "Yeah, that sounds like Steve Reich" or something.

Jon Hassell"I was angry about that," Hassell continues, "so I said, 'Okay, I'm just going to make it all sustained and then I'm going to carve out the frequencies with a voltage control filter, using the Moog.' So I started doing that piece as a sound sculpture. Billing makes a difference. If you present it as a sound sculpture then people listen to it from a different way than if it were called music, so I did some things like that."

The past few years have seen a remarkable upsurge in activity for the seventy-something Hassell. In addition to performing with the regularly shifting line-up of his Maarifa Street group, he is a member of Norwegian keyboardist/composer Jon Balke's Siwan project, which performed at Mai Jazz 2008 in Stavanger, Norway and will have a CD released on ECM in 2009; has been appearing with Eno for what they call a "conversational remix"—a means to discuss, in public, ideas that the two are working on for two separate books, with Hassell's titled The North and South of You; has created a sound installation using church bells in Kristiansand, Norway as part of Punkt 08, called NEAR FAR; and has completed a choral work, commissioned by the Norfolk & Norwich Festival.


Public Conversation Pieces with Brian Eno

Hassell and Eno's friendship and collaborative partnering dates back 30 years, but their "conversational remix" at Punkt 08 was the first time the two appeared onstage together to discuss their largely coinciding views of life, the universe and everything. "We're continuing with what it's called now, a 'conversation piece.' It's not just the conversation; when I delve into it, it means another round at culling out the burrs and the curds and the whey from the book, and trying to move it to some other level. The fact is that things move so rapidly in this YouTube-ish world that we're in, and when something that happens live, I presume it will get reported. There's even talk of webcasts. I'm not sure that's actually happening. The short thing I'm saying is that I kind of wish that we would carry this on in a more aggressive manner, that is to say, a college tour, that kind of thing. Brian is withholding a little bit from that because he's a bit burned out and wants to reserve some [energy] to work on whatever his book is going to be."

Jon Hassell / Brian Eno Brian Eno (l) and Jon Hassell (r) Conversation Piece (click to view full size)
The two set up on a stage with a couple of chairs, an overhead projector and sheets of paper that are spread around the floor of the stage, they both referenced various pages of text which act as catalysts for the two to shed light on their shared philosophy, one that each articulates differently but which ultimately comes down to a shared idea that there's a disconnect between head and heart. Hassell's The North and South of You references the dichotomy between the first and third world countries largely divided by the equator, and the equal split between the intellectual and the sensual, with the equator being the waist of the body. Eno's working title is Surrender which speaks to the idea of surrendering gracefully and becoming a part of something rather than controlling it, with his paradigm of north at one end and south at the other representing the opposing impulses of control and surrender.

"The idea is," Hassell says, 'hey, let's do the book tour before the book and let's do it with two personalities that can actually get enough attention—weight it towards Brian's attention-getting capabilities, so it could actually fly as a bit of performance art mixed with whatever else. We're living in the new Obama time," concludes Hassell, "when everything seems possible. And I just think it seems like a worldwide teachable moment right now that needs to be attacked as in carpe diem. And I'm hoping to convince Brian that we should go that way with it, because the ultimate result is a book or books, because of the documentation.

Hassell and Eno first intersected in the late-'70s, when Eno attended a Hassell concert in New York. "He [Eno] came to a concert I did at The Kitchen [in New Yorkl], a solo concert with somebody doing the loop thing," Hassell explains. It was my debut, if you will, in New York. And so Brian was there and then we spoke afterwards, he introduced himself and said he'd been listening to Vernal Equinox over and over and thought we should get together. So we started hanging out socially. And then he also was working with David Byrne at that time, The Talking Heads, and the time was Remain in Light (Sire, 1980). So we all started to hang out a bit together. We'd go to James Brown concerts together or go to see Brazilian movies.

So that's how I met Brian," Hassell concludes. "The years have passed and I'm the godfather to Brian's daughters, so we have a strong personal connection."

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