In making Vernal Equinox available on vinyl for the first time in forty-two years and on CD for the first time in three decades, Jon Hassell's 1977 album has been fully remastered for its updated release on the artist's own Ndeya label. This first commercially released work by Hassell was, by many accounts, an early glimpse into a sound that would later go on to be known as 'Fourth World,' a mix of electronics, jazz, classical Indian music field recordings and ambient music (arguably a direct descendant from and distillation of music on Miles Davis' On The Corner (Columbia, 1972).
Intensely cerebral as it is, the warmth supplied by the percussion of Nana Vasconselos, among others, is indispensable in keeping these five cuts from becoming both icy and amorphous as they unfold. The approximately forty-eight minutes of playing time evolves with successively longer tracks such as "Toucan Ocean," "Viva Shona" and "Hex" leading to the extended title track in a logical progression. At just over two minutes, "Caracas Night" is properly brief as it provides both a finishing touch and a gateway for repeated reentry into what can be an altogether sublime listening experience.
Hassell's and company's sound here so engrossing it refuses to become merely a background. Drones act as a cushion for specially-tuned and altered electronics that in turn hew to the background of deceptively random fragments of audio including the sounds of ocean waves and bird calls. It may be overstatement to say that engineer Al Carlson's mastering work for this release reveals the varying layers of texture, but it's certainly accurate to say his expertise preserves the proper instrumental relationships in the mix; as with the preceding tracks, "Vernal Equinox" is a seamless sonic composite.
There's no question that, as with the whole album, Jon Hassell was testing audience(s). Yet his challenge to them is no greater than that which he and the other participants in this recording presented themselves, that is, to formulate a listening experience whole unto itself, yet nevertheless connected to the mundane it transcends with such quiet drama. Forged from sessions completed at a number of locations, the continuity of the work is impressive, all the more so since ambient sound is rarely this addictive.
Fused into such finite expression, Jon Hassell wisely deemed Vernal Equinox so complete unto itself that he chose to add little extra content. Accordingly, there are no previously-unreleased recordings added into this reissue package, while the sleeve notes by Brian Eno and Hassell himself are testament to a mutual admiration society, grounded in the practical reality that each nurtured the other's creative instincts. Yet the generally literal-minded nature of the prose goes somewhat against the grain of the ethereal art upon which it is based and, as a result, the reproductions of written notes on the tape boxes in the eight-page booklet here may be more enlightening.
Still, the aforementioned writing, like the pastel color scheme of Ariel Peeri's cover art, is in keeping with the sense of renewal, fleeting though it may be, implicit in the title Vernal Equinox. Little wonder this album remains thought-provoking nearly fifty years after its initial release.
Toucan Ocean; Viva Shona; Hex; Blues Nile; Vernal Equinox; Caracas Night September 11, 1975.
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