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08 février 2009

Jon Hassell returns to Tennessee for first U.S. tour in two decades

By Steve Wildsmith of The Daily Times Staff, February 05. 2009

Jon Hassell may have roots deep into the West Tennessee soil, but his musical branches stretch toward stages and fans around the world.

Today, the Memphis-born trumpet player returns to his home state, playing only his second concert on U.S. soil in two decades (the first was on Thursday night). He has a new album -- "Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street" -- that continues the lifelong dedication he has for pushing the boundaries of composition and performance.

"My aim has always been to do something that pleases myself, and after having gone through the sort of intellectual side of things and the abstract side of things, I came up with this idea of 'Fourth World,'" Hassell told The Daily Times during a recent interview. "It was supposed to be a quickie logo that said something about First World technology and Third World spirituality and tradition. I've always felt as though I was doing something that was completely accessible -- something that had this sensuality to it that was immediately appealing, yet something that had some kind of clockwork and structure inside of it that was different than classical music or popular music or jazz.

"It was kind of my attempt to create a fictional village, if you will, where there's a return to tradition for our time using the technology we have today. It's a bit like sampling is used in hip-hop -- futuristic music with all of these samples, like taking something that happened in a studio in the 1950s and throwing it into this other atmosphere and making little mosaics out of it.
"Instead of having a tambura background, I have this background of tiny little one-second excerpts put together into this mosaic," he added. "If you look at it closely with a microscope internally, it's an abstraction, but on the surface, I'm going for beauty and sensuality."

Hassell's divergent career began at the Eastman School of Music, where he became more and more interested in experimental expression and the relatively new genre of music known as avant-garde. In the mid-1960s, he studied in Germany; upon returning to New York, he performed with both Terry Riley and La Monte Young before studying with Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath.

"They had brought him over to do concerts in New York, and that was a big revelation for me," Hassell said. "I was exposed to this whole pedagogical teaching process -- he would sing a phrase, and you would sing it back; if you didn't get it right, he would sing it again; if you still didn't get it right, he would simplify it for you. I was so blessed to have that way of learning something after going through the traditional Western educational system.

"Raga, to me, sounds like calligraphy in the air. It exposed me to a completely different way of looking at things. If you look at it in Western notations, it seems like a Western scale, but with all of the curves and the way the pitches are connected and formed, you wouldn't even relate it to a major scale.
"That became like a mirror, a lens, through which I saw everything else," Hassell added.

Hassell's education with Pran Nath led him to incorporate the vocal inflections of raga -- melodic modes used in Indian classical music -- into his trumpet playing, which developed an entirely new style for both his instrument and his music. His 1977 album, "Vernal Equinox," was the beginning of a lifelong quest to create music so integrated that any particular moment lifted from a specific composition could not be tied to a particular genre or nation.

Over the years, his music caught the ear of such producers, composers and musicians as Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Ry Cooder and U2's Bono. His playing has been featured in such films as "The Last Temptation of Christ," "Million Dollar Hotel" and "Angel Eyes," among others.

His new album, which returns Hassell to the ECM label on which he last recorded in 1984, takes its title from a 13th century poem. It's sublime in its beauty; atmospheric and haunting and futuristic, a record that wouldn't be out of place as the soundtrack to the classic sci-fi flick "Blade Runner" Ridley Scott. Hassell has described the record as a "continuous piece, almost symphonic, with a cinematic construction," and its genesis can be traced to the first step in Hassell's creative process -- sitting in a metaphorical dark room, purging himself of outside input, searching for the seed of a new creation that piques his interest.

"I've been working on a book for a long time called 'The North and South of You: Making the World Safe for Pleasure,'" Hassell said. "It's not a conventional book; it's more of a lot of headline pages with a lot of little sample quotations. It's almost structured from the point of view of sampling, and one of the pages is called, 'What is it I really like?'"

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