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

John Kelman By

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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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