by Casey Dolan
Jon Hassell has built a lauded career by playing short enigmatic statements on his trumpet, incorporating music from various cultures and gradually enhancing his compositions with a greater use of electronics. The result is rarely a concrete musical statement, but rather a collection of intimations, or, perhaps, intimacies. From his groundbreaking work with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois in the early ’80s to his latest recording (released this week on ECM), “Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street,” he has developed a sound that suggests rather than states, gives an impression rather than documents. It’s a very open form of composition and when his band, Maarifa Street, is comprised of electric bassist and laptop practitioner, Peter Freeman, often playing an ostinato figure and sounding like a man schooled in dub, two “live samplers,” Jan Bang and J.A. Deane, who make extensive use of loops and manipulating echo and an Algerian violinist, Kheir-Eddine M’Kachiche, who sounds as much Hindustani as Arabic, and purposefully playing at an almost-inaudible volume at times, the audience is either along for the ride, descending into dream, or irritated at the lack of something going on and leaving in a huff.
Extraordinarily, a surprising number of people did the latter last night at Royce Hall at UCLA. I don’t know what they might have been expecting — Hassell has hardly deviated from his original intentions — but if the simplicity of his compositions seem boring to some, they are missing the point and sheer musicality of the presentation. Simplicity is not necessarily easy.
For example, take Hassell’s tone. No amount of processing can take away the fact that the man possesses one of the clearest trumpet tones around (and by that I do not mean brassy; it is anything but brassy). He may have a large room reverb, an echo with a 15-second tail, but there is little fluffing or flutter-tonguing. Instead, and eerily similar to the impassioned vocal style of opening act, the Tunisian singer and oud player Dhaffer Youssef, the tone is clear, sustained and brilliantly in pitch.
Therein lies the beauty of Jon Hassell. His own training was in both minimalist composition and in taking the exotic, modal melodic ideas of Indian vocalist Pandir Pran Nath and adapting them to trumpet. Because Arabic music and Indian music share certain modal scales, these melodies — brief as some of them are — take on a universality. Add to that the almost primal influence of Miles Davis — not just the obvious “In A Silent Way” Miles, an Ark of the Covenent for all contemporary ambient music, but the Miles of the Gil Evans recordings — and you have a music of mood and of suggestion rather than assertion.
On the title track of the new CD, performed midway in the set, a simple two chord movement — the flat seven to the tonic — defines the piece. That’s it. But a more ghostly presentation can hardly be imagined as both Bang and Deane add sounds that recall a seagull’s caw hovering over an empty beach, rocks churning in a gentle tide, a distant transistor radio’s static, perhaps the electromagnetic pulses from a dying dwarf star.
This is music to make us drift and those of us who cannot do so are perhaps victims of a culture in which musical ideas mutate so quickly as to obliterate any real comprehension of the sheer beauty in sound. Hassell understands well that every moment contains an infinity of sounds and that sound contains an infinity of moments. In other words, Hassell is encouraging to not merely stop and smell the roses, but to hear them as well. Hear them and remember them.
Dhafer Youssef performed a far more exuberant set with his utterly stellar quartet of 21-year-old Tigran Hamasyan on piano, the ever-reliable and energetic Scott Colley on double bass and Satoshi Takeishi on drums. All three had to negotiate some tricky time signatures and melismatic melodies. Youssef sings with such passion that the audience cannot fail to be involved, and his fluency with Sufi musical traditions has found a communicative vehicle in this hybrid jazz quartet. His oud playing was eloquent and facile, often perfectly synchronous with Hamasyan. But the star of the set, and given an entirely solo moment on stage with the rest of the band departing, was drummer Takeishi who used his kit as hand drums and played with these meters as if they were all 4/4. Takeishi effortlessly kept the flow going.
It was a musical night which demonstrated the easy transgression of boundaries between ethnicities and genres and a challenge to the expectations of what a concert is supposed to be.