The avant-garde trumpeter, composer and innovator Jon Hassell died this week. He was not as well known as he should have been. He blazed his trail largely out of sight of the mainstream and along the way he created marvellous worlds. His early influences were minimalism, serialism, Indian vocal traditions and Miles Davis. He was a softly spoken trumpeter, a world music innovator, a change agent in rock and a Jazz influencer. On one website sub-genre descriptors call his styles; ethnic fusion, experimental jazz, techno-tribal, ambient improvisation. While associated with many genres, he had moved beyond them to forge a new type of music.
His creations have always been deeply respectful of the older musical traditions. You will find beautifully crafted fragments of microtonal Indian classical music or textural Balinese Gamalon music. At no point does this feel like appropriation. And all layered lovingly over a deep pulse of electronic effects, a funk bassline and none of it rushed. If you watch videos of him playing you will notice that he points the trumpet bell downwards. Sampling and shaping the sound, on wondrous machines like the Eventide Harmoniser; ever shapeshifting as he moves tangentially between harmony and melody. His trumpet sound is unusual, developed out of early experiments with electronic effects as he sought to approximate Kiranic vocal techniques.
As a student, he was attracted to serialism and after graduating he studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen in Europe. On returning to the US he met Terry Riley and performed on the first recording of ‘In C’, a work regarded as a seminal moment in modern music. During the early seventies, he discovered Kiranic singing and along with Riley, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, studied under Pandit Pran Nath (Nath was a pupil of the Sufi vocal master Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan). They were later joined by Jazz Musicians and among them Lee Konitz and Don Cherry. Hassell was a Miles Davis fan and several of his albums highlight that influence. His best-known mainstream collaborations were with Brian Eno, Talking Heads, David Sylvian, Ry Cooder and Tears for Fears.
Less well known was his enormous influence on the Norwegian jazz scene. During the last few decades, he would perform with or influence various Norwegian Jazz musicians. Members of the underground techno-Jazz fraternity. Eivind Aaset, Jan Bang, Erik Honore, Bugge Wesseltoft, Nils Petter Molvaer, Arve Hendrikson, Sidsel Endreson and others. A sub-genre that is increasingly accepted by Nordic jazz audiences. (The top video features guitarist Eivind Aaset and electronics mastermind Jan Bang).
Hassell’s innovations and collaborations have produced some extraordinary recordings. My personnel favourite is his ECM recording ‘Last night the moon came, dropping its clothes on the street’ (the title is from a Rumi poem). On this album from 2009, he plays alongside like-minded Norwegian improvising musicians. He always used evocative album titles and his album covers and videos magnify the effect. Album titles like ‘Vernal Equinox’, ‘Dream Theory Malaysia’, ‘The Surgeon of the Night Sky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound’, ‘Mareefa Street, Magic Realism’,’ Listening to Pictures’, ‘Seeing through Sound – Pentimento’ (pentimento: where a painting reveals fragments of an older painting hidden underneath). He painted in the softest of pastels, dabbing sound onto a universal canvas, elevating mood to the position of supremacy and infusing everything with a rare beauty.
JazzLocal32.com is rated as one of the 50 best Jazz Blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association, poet & writer. Some of these posts appear on related sites.