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14 février 2009

Trumpeter Jon Hassell strives to unite North and South

By Alexander Varty,, February 12, 2009

Jon Hassell's résumé makes him sound like a charter member of music's Mensa club—and for good reason. The trumpeter's early mentor was the German visionary Karlheinz Stockhausen, and he later studied with Pandit Pran Nath, the North Indian guru to such pioneering minimalists as Terry Riley and La Monte Young.

He's also performed with Brian Eno, David Byrne, Ry Cooder, and Peter Gabriel—a who's who of the smartest people in popular music. And then there's the fact that it only takes a couple of minutes, once I reach him at home in Los Angeles, before we sail off into a discussion of polytonality versus atonality. For the record, Hassell prefers the former, although he has made close examination of pioneering serialist Anton Webern's scores.

Still, he stresses that he is an “untheoretical” musician. “For me the proof is in the sound,” he says. “And that's all that really matters.”

That sound—a digitally harmonized trumpet, blowing sweetly over shimmering clouds of electronics and deep, dublike bass lines—is one of the most gorgeous things going. You can pick it apart in terms of how his melodic lines derive from Hindu devotional singing, or how his rhythms have been impacted by West African drumming, but for Hassell it all comes down to reconciling North and South—which happens to be the topic of a book he's been working on for more than a decade.
“It's called The North and South of You, and the subtitle is Making the World Safe for Pleasure,” he explains. “Briefly put, if you project the body onto the globe or the globe onto the body, the northern situation of the body is intellectual or abstract, while the southern is sensual. In the global situation, it's like ‘developed' versus ‘underdeveloped'. And included in the underdeveloped category, of course, is just about all the music that we love.”

With his slow, dreamy, and often intricately patterned music, Hassell hopes to offer his listeners an experience that combines intellectual stimulation with sensual delight. And he delivers just that on his latest release, Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street, which takes its title from a Rumi poem and its inspiration from a little-known Norwegian festival.

“The hook, if you will, is that it's a remix festival,” he says of Punkt, which takes place in the seaside town of Kristiansand. “What happens is that a group is invited to perform in the big hall, and then simultaneously there's a remix going on in a smaller room.”

In concert with his quintet, Maarifa Street, Hassell explores similar terrain. He and Tunisian violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche contribute melodies, bassist Peter Freeman provides the pulse, and laptop jockeys J. A. Deane and Jan Bang create live electronic soundscapes by sampling and processing the others' work.
“I'm trying to encourage everybody in this band to go places that are surprising,” he comments. And, more often than not, they do.

Jon Hassell and Maarifa Street play the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (February 14).

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