Jon Hassell and the Art of Suggestion

Jon Hassell; photo by Jenafer Gillingham
Jon Hassell; photo by Jenafer Gillingham

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.

7 thoughts on “Jon Hassell and the Art of Suggestion

  1. I saw the 2/10 concert in NYC. My expectations were unrealistic, my favorite recording of his being “Fascinoma”. I was there for the trumpet sound. There was some of that, but of course heavily transformed and processed as you so well describe, by the aural food chain of samplers. I looked to the bass player to keep us anchored to the sea bottom.


  2. >his fluency with Sufi musical traditions

    Only, Dhaffer does not know much about Sufi traditions, and even does not speak Arabi (as he grew up in Europe): he re-invents/emulates both rather than reproduces.


    1. Cyril, I beg to differ, slightly. Youssef was born in Tunisia and didn’t leave until his mid- to late teens, when he went to Vienna to study. He had a Koranic education throughout his childhood, which would make me doubt that he did not speak Arabic. When he came to Vienna, it is true that he steeped himself in European musical traditions, both classical and jazz, but I think the music of his childhood, which was classical Arabic, continued to have an influence. You are correct insofar as he is not performing music from a pure Sufi tradition, as would be, say, a qawwali singer, but I meant to suggest in my review that there was an influence and I think I’m correct in saying that.


  3. Yes, we walked out!!
    Way too much in the realm of pre-recorded bits of drums and other sounds that could have been live. This was for my wife & myself; embarrassing, disappointing, sad and I just couldn’t feel it. We stayed for about 40 minutes and quietly left. Dhafer Youssef was a spectacular performance as the opening group, they were stellar!! Dhafer had one of my favorite percussionists, Satoshi Takeishi, he was amazing. Scott Colley on upright and Tigran Hamasyan on piano, both superb musicians and improvisers.
    Given that the evening started with such accomplished and interactive musicians, it is possible that my ears were slightly jaded. I am still and will always hold Hassell way up there as an amazingly wonderful musician/composer. I do question his line-up of musicians, especially given that as he tours the newest project, why on earth wouldn’t he have Steve Sheehan or Pete Lockett, or someone on ambient percussion?? I sat there wondering if that was a sound bite of one of those 2 percussionists on frame drum, bass drum of any of the other myriad of percussion sound samples within the mix?!
    Jon Hassell is an icon and would love to work with him, but, if I used samples of his playing in performance, I would at minimum mention this in the program. I blame myself for not checking out the interview on NPR where he may have prepared me better for the concept of the concert.
    I have experienced Eno live when he had the stage split with 4 musicains playing beautiful ambient sounds on acoustic and electronic instruments, while on the other half of the stage was a sculpture installation that moved with the wind and had a light show application. My point is that I understand ambient performance, however, in my opinion last Friday’s performance missed the mark.


  4. You can speak as eloquently as you’d like about an artist, but at the end of the day, if that artist’s work doesn’t connect and move the audience, they will leave…..


  5. True enough, Pogo56. That’s what makes horse races and obviously, for many people, Hassell’s performance was not a horse race but a tortoise race. I would argue that everyone should have been listening more closely, but it’s the missionary zealot in me.


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