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

John Kelman By

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Punkt

When Jan Bang and Erik Honoré came up with the idea of Punkt—where live performances are alternated with immediate live remixes in another room at the festival venue, with other artists interacting with the remix—Hassell was the clear progenitor of the concept. Appearing at the festival three out of its current four years, he's also heard on Live Remixes Vol.1 (Jazzland, 2008), where he engages with Bang, Honoré and percussionist Audun Kleive on a live remix of a performance by the Norwegian group Merriwinkle—singer Sidsel Endresen, keyboardist Christian Wallumrød and sonic manipulator Helge Sten (aka Deathprod).

"Well, when Jan [Bang] originally invited me [in 2005], he basically said, 'You're the godfather of this situation,'" Hassell says, "and, in fact, that's when he played me tracks that he'd done for that piece called "Aurora," for which he shares co-writer credit [on Last night the moon came]. He said, 'I made something you would have done 10 years ago or more.'

Jon Hassell"So I'm very much indebted for their openness and their acknowledgment, both Jan and the festival and the whole scene," Hassell continues. "Just to give you another little capsule, a little picture of the last time we were there [2008]. I think it was in the museum there when we were there to see Brian [Eno]'s 77 Million Paintings. And Nils Petter [Molvær] and Arve [Henriksen] and I were sitting around the table and we started singing—we were riffing on various things and we came up on "Flash of the Spirit" [from Flash of the Spirit (Intuition, 1989]) and they started singing the bass line. And it was kind of like, a good time was had by all—me, laughing at the fact that they knew it and that Arve had told me before that he used to go to sleep every night listening to Aka Darbari Java.

"So I appreciate it and I understand where it came from," continues Hassell, "but I can't be too concerned with it actually; I don't like to really listen to what's going on with them to tell you the truth. It's one thing what happened with Arve [in 2007, when Henriksen sat in on Hassell's closing remix of the festival], because of that disastrous fever blister that I had when I couldn't play at all. So I didn't really want that—it was going to be a kind of movie-like moment, with the passing of the torch to the younger generation, and I didn't exactly want to feel like it was all over for me."

Of course it's far from over for Hassell, but that remix remains one of the festival's most memorable and moving moments ever; an opportunity to not only see and hear the impact Hassell has had on Henriksen, but the other participants of the remix as well—Eivind Aarset, Jan Bang, and Erik Honoré.

"I was instructed to hear him [Henriksen] up close and hear him play, and he's definitely great and got something going," Hassell says. "I've never had what you'd call a perfect embouchure and playing has never been easy for me. So all the time those struggles of things not being easy, if you're really working to overcome, that becomes part of the story too and something else comes out of it. If you have perfect coloratura of the voice that's great, but I'd rather hear the untutored thing with feeling, like Jimmy Scott. Naturally you could say from the outside, 'Okay, he can't play like Charlie Parker. He's not like a fast, technical player, so naturally he would like these other things.' Well, which comes first? I've often thought that I was so lucky I didn't learn to play raga, because I would have run the risk of becoming a sideshow act where, 'Oh, here, he plays trumpet.' In fact there's a guy that came to a concert in New York that I haven't checked out but he said, 'I've been studying with Michael Harrison, who is associated with this perfectly-tempered piano thing.

"So he said that he's playing a lot on trumpet and he's working on an instrument with a fourth valve, to do the quarter tones," Hassell continues. "I'm not so interested in that and I'm much more interested in how I feel, the collage thing I wouldn't be listening to Nils Petter or Arve and checking them out and thinking, 'What are they doing,' because I don't really think I can learn anything there. I'm not seeking out a whole lot of things right now because I think I've got enough of a footing in the world to just do what I do, and have almost perhaps reached that Valhalla of life—that moment which I've wished for. If I could only be like some archetypal blues player from the Delta, who can only do one thing; that's what he does and he doesn't worry about it. I don't like to hear somebody else playing something and try to play it, to join this movement or that movement. Basically I've got enough of this culture I've made around me so that I'm taking comfort in doing what I do. It's not anything—it's not like I'm militaristic about it like, 'Don't play that for me!'"

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DJ Hassell

Hassell recently had the opportunity to DJ on KCRW, the radio station of Santa Monica College, and shed light on some more of his early influences. "I was on KCRW, doing a guest DJ thing," Hassell explains, "and part of the deal was to talk about and play some of the new record, but it was really to be a guest DJ. So I brought in a few things and one of them was this beautiful thing—Chet Baker singing and playing on this tune called "Fair Weather." It's from the Herbie Hancock score to [Bernard Tavernier's] 'Round Midnight [(1986)], the movie. And I'm guessing that's not far from the end of Chet's life and the playing is labored. It's beautiful. The voice is incredible.

Jon Hassell / Maarifa Street l:r: Jon Hassell, Peter Freeman, Pedram Khavarzamini

"The subject was things that made me cry," Hassell continues, "things that I can't hear without crying. So the vulnerability in his voice and the playing was so powerful. I mean, God, I'd so much rather hear that, even though I can't listen to it a lot because I don't want to have my buttons pushed every day, every moment. But it's so much more powerful to me to hear that—that's really the kind of moment that I like to live in. I'm just a sucker for the movie world I grew up in.

"Another thing I played was, of course, Miles' 'Black Satin,' from On the Corner (Columbia, 1972)," Hassell concludes. "I couldn't leave that out of any of my favorite things."

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