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23 novembre 2008

Excursions to the outer edge of contemporary jazz

By James Scanlon, For The Prague Post, November 5th, 2008

Trumpeter Jon Hassell brings his 'Fourth World' soundscapes to Prague

For three decades, American trumpet player and composer Jon Hassell has been pioneering atmospheric soundscapes that transcend all the possibilities of conventional jazz, avant-garde and world music. It’s earned him unending plaudits from artists of the ambient persuasion, and many more.

In an interview in The Guardian last year, Brian Eno revealed the huge debt he owes Hassell after hearing his 1977 debut album Vernal Equinox. “This record fascinated me,” Eno said. “It was dreamy, strange, meditative music that was inflected by Indian, African and South American music, but also seemed located in the lineage of tonal minimalism. It was music I felt I’d been waiting for.”

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1937, Hassell fine-honed the art of “vocal trumpet” after meeting Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath. His technique of rousing ethereal, digitally altered trumpet lines forms the basis of what Hassell calls “Fourth World” music. It’s a concept that combines minimalism with African and Asian styles through the use of electronic instrumentation.

Listening to albums like Vernal Equinox, the curiously titled The Surgeon of the Nightsky Restores Dead Things by the Power of Sound (1991) and Maarifa Street (2005), you get a sense of being sucked into a vortex of hypnotic sounds that transports you to other worlds. It’s all part of the ambiguity of Hassell’s Fourth World, which he defines as “an attitude, something that happens when a respectful, intelligent and creative mind meets the tension between north and south. … I think of north and south not only in global terms, but also, for example, within the body.”

Classically trained in composition at American conservatories, Hassell expanded his musical palette considerably after further studies with the likes of electronic genius Karlheinz Stockhausen in Darmstadt, Germany. It was there that he met classmates Holger Czukay and Irwin Schmidt, who went on to form the wildly feral and experimental Can.

It wasn’t until he returned to the States in 1967 that Hassell started to concentrate on playing the trumpet again. His first recording duties came the following year when he was asked to help out on Terry Riley’s In C album. As Hassell’s reputation grew, so did the collaborations. Some highpoints include performing at Peter Gabriel’s first-ever WOMAD Festival in 1982, and contributions to Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land (1982) and Talking Heads’ Remain In Light (1980). He’s also worked with the Kronos Quartet, Ry Cooder and Ibrahim Ferrer, and pop stars like Bjork, Lloyd Cole and Tears For Fears.

For all that, there are critics who say that Hassell has borrowed too heavily from Miles Davis’ use of electronics and modal harmonies. Hassell’s response: “After years of trying to make the case for an improvisational music which is not jazz, and staying away from the clichés of jazz instrumentation and styles, I started to feel free enough to let more obvious elements of my respect for Miles creep in from time to time.”

Like Davis’, a lot of Hassell’s compositions are open-ended. But the unpredictability is one of the best things about them, not knowing what’s going to happen next.

This past May, Hassell surprised many by performing “In Tsegihi,” a choral piece for 100 voices and a chamber group in the atmospheric surroundings of Norwich Cathedral, England. At 71, he is still breaking new ground as he comes to Prague, armed with material both old and new. While it’s impossible to say what he’ll do with it, it’s guaranteed to be fresh and inventive.

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