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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
  9. NEAR FAR
  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.

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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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Touring in 2009 with Maarifa Street

Along with the book and his conversational pieces with Eno, the most important things on Hassell's mind at the moment are Last night the moon came—his first recording for ECM since 1986's outstanding Power Spot—and his first major North American tour in many years, which wrapped up in February, 2009. This incarnation of Maarifa Street featured, in addition to Hassell on trumpet and keyboards, long-time musical partner, bassist/laptop player Peter Freeman, Jan Bang utilizing samples and live sampling—which involves recording snippets of music being played, and sending it back to the group, often considerably altered through processing, all in real time—Dino J.A. Deane, also on sampler/live sampling, and extraordinary violinist Kheir-Eddine M'Kachiche (nicknamed Kem, for short). "In general the concerts went really, really well and I'm very happy that we did it," says Hassell. "It was a real administrative grind to get through it all and to go through the visa problems with Kem—he's from Algeria, and then Arnaud [Mercier], the technical director without whom nothing happens, is from Nice, [France]. He had a visa problem, and so it was incredibly costly and time-consuming to mount the thing. But musically speaking it was really, really good."

This was a slightly different group than the one that played only a few months earlier at Punkt 08, where instead of Deane, Hassell recruited remarkable Iranian percussionist Pedram Khavarzamini who, along with Kem, Hassell first met with Siwan. "He's a great drummer," Hassell explains, "but it just didn't work out. The economics of touring require you to pack as much power into one person as you can. So I [recruited] J. A. Deane, who I had recently come into contact with after an absence of many, many years. He was on Power Spot and a lot of the records from that epoch. So I had two live samplers, kind of symmetrical on the stage, and Peter, [Kem] and myself. So it was five onstage."

Jon Hassell / Maarifa Street l:r: Jon Hassell, Arnaud Mercier, Rick Cox, Jamie Muhoberac, Peter Freeman

As good as Hassell feels about the tour—a feeling that was shared by his audiences in cities ranging from New York and Philadelphia, to Los Angeles and Vancouver, Canada—he's always searching for ways to refine the process. It's why, with only a couple of minor detours, his entire discography reflects a singular, albeit stylistically broad, musical vision that continues to evolve with every passing year. "I remember the concert in Punkt," Hassell recalls, "it was a very slow start for me. And if you're totally committed to the idea of closing your eyes and tripping, okay; no problem. But I personally need to use my own yardstick for what keeps the attention level high. So I'm always trying to, in a sense, splice or "edit" from every live experience we have because I think, 'Don't be so tentative. Make your statement, say it.' If it's wrong then we'll know.

"I guess I've delivered enough nasty looks," he continues. "I'm not a mouse onstage so I guess I've made my unhappiness clear at such points so that musicians often try to please me, so to speak. And sometimes that's a problem. I also appreciate someone who is their own personality. Obviously there's got to be some merging with the kind of musical culture that I've built up over the years. Herbie Hancock called me from Sweden a few months ago. He was visiting Peter Johansson, a drummer that he played with before, and [who] had played some with Maarifa Street, and he called me from there and said, 'You know, I really like this.'

"So we made noises about getting together sometime," Hassell continues, "and what brings it to mind is that with someone who has a long career and long roots and all that, that's not the kind of person that would [necessarily] fit in the situation as a musician. I mean obviously if I did something with Herbie it would be quite different, a different mold. I'm only making the point here about the fact that if someone who has a well-formed profile comes into the group, then that's a problem too. So sometimes it's a delicate balance between spontaneity and forthrightness. I think everybody knows when it's good; that's my assumption, that everybody knows when it's good. And, in fact, that's really the key—to just tell yourself constantly what it is that you really like.

"It's that page from the book that I spoke about in Kristiansand [in 2008]," Hassell concludes, "that says: 'You let the things that you're supposed to like—or the thing that your peers tell you you're supposed to like or all the givens that you have grown up and grown through and come out of—and not make the mistake of rejecting all of them out of hand.' Some of [those] givens may be things that you really do like. And those are the ones that you should welcome, that you should accept."

Hassell's music is defined by gradual evolution; tracks like "Abu Gil," from Last night the moon came, unfold slowly, almost painstakingly, with clear motifs (in this case a reference to Duke Ellington's "Caravan" and Gil Evans' rich approach to orchestration). Still, as hypnotic as Hassell's music is—perhaps the most successful marriage of head and heart, as music for the mind that still resonates on a deeply emotional, deeply physical level—Hassell is constantly looking for ways to hone it, and avoid the risk of excessive meandering.

"I see my whole progression in terms of just winnowing out the things that I don't really like," Hassell explains. "I don't hold back about what I feel about things like that. Naturally I have to be polite if I'm talking to other people or talking about other peoples' work. But when I say, 'I'm sorry, I'm bored here,' I'm very quick to say that about my own output. And when I try to make the band function that way I say: 'Listen to this, these two minutes here, where we could have gotten from point A to point B without going through this tentativeness.' I don't want to lean on some kind of, 'Oh, it's space music and you're just supposed to trip out and imagine wherever your imagination goes.' I am perfectly happy to not be criticized by people in that state. I'd probably hate it if it was a music critic that was writing that about me. If I were completely honest, I'd be saying: 'Here's something that's not moving fast enough for me,'" and there's stuff on the record that I would change now.

Jon Hassell"The live performances are often, I think, better than the record—sometimes not," Hassell continues. "But certainly having those forces, that is to say, the two live samplers, the real point is to say, 'Look, let's keep this wide open, not just because you're there. Think of it as—I was going to say conversation, but it's maybe more like a ceremony, and you only interject whenever [you] feel like it. The model that's coming in my mind now is the Black church. When someone is saying the right thing or singing the right thing, the words are, 'Yes, Lord! Yeah! Amen!' That kind of spontaneity is so great in that tradition.

"And so I'm saying to the live samplers, 'Okay, be careful,'" Hassell concludes. "Jan has it down and then Dino, because Jan has played it before—he was the one on the record. That piece [the title track] actually began when we were in the studio in Provence [Studios La Buissonne]. The origin was that I said, 'Okay, now let's just turn things upside down; let's slow down, let's take a few of the elements out of "Maarifa Street"—I'm talking about the tune now, not the group [from the album Magic Realism 2 (Nyen, 2005)]—let's take a few elements out of that menu and apply them in a way so that we turn this in a way, [and] make it not recognizable at all."

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