BIG EARS 09: Jon Hassell

Visionary trumpeter Jon Hassell finds his own way

Gather up all of your favorite and familiar trumpet sounds: marches, Satchmo, Haydn, ska maybe, Dixieland, Dizzy, the many moods of Miles Davis, what have you. Now put those away, someplace safe, while you consider the music of trumpeter Jon Hassell. Categories and preconceptions won't help you here. It's entirely possible that the things you know and the things you have done that will make this music meaningful to you aren't related to music at all. Reading Paul Bowles or camping out among the sculptural installations of Juan Muñoz or riding your bicycle with no hands on the way to Hassell's upcoming performance might easily be the better preludes.

Hassell is aware that his music is not much like anyone else's. He does not appear to be troubled by the fact. From his home in Los Angeles, he indulges a stranger by wondering why.

"There are all these cultural givens," he says. "When you're maturing, what you're hearing and seeing and having forced upon you.... You have to fight your way out of that thicket of givens. You have to decide what you really like as opposed to what you're supposed to like. It's more subtle than simply being for or against."

It's the first week of January and the news is full of hope taking shape in the form of a presidential cabinet.

"It's like Obama is what it is—taking the best of what's available to you," Hassell says.

What Hassell does as a composer and improvising performer is decidedly, consistently new, but not without some history. He's been performing and recording since the mid-1970s. The title and certain other elements of his just-released Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street come from the 13th-century Sunni poet Rumi.

"I have this traditional Western education," he says. "I got my master's in music at Eastman. Then I got the European, more philosophical approach when I studied with Stockhausen. And then I studied with the master Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, throwing everything out the window. His method of teaching was simply singing to me. He would sing a phrase and then I would sing it back to him. If he thought I sang it incorrectly he would sing it again. And if he got the impression I would never get a particular phrase, he just went on to the next thing. Then I picked up the trumpet and tried to make those shapes he was teaching me."

Knowing a little about Hassell's path helps to explain some of his sounds—the exoticness, the prettiness, the combination of traditional and electronic instrumental voices—but it doesn't explain why, when put together, they sound as magnetically compelling as they do. There are moments when the music plays more like overlapping vignettes or montage than so-called arrangements, and you can't tear yourself away for fear of missing what's to come. Hassell calls the music he's been making in this century "fourth-world music."

"Briefly put, the first world is technology and the third world is tradition and spirituality," Hassell says. "Moving beyond the first and third worlds, the fourth world is hopefully keeping some of the good things about tradition and spirituality and amplifying them with electronics and other means."

Reading it, that may sound like a concoction. Listening, it makes more sense as the discovery of some latent truth. "Light on Water," from Last Night the Moon, probably has more in common with the weather than it does with anything on the average working man's iPod these days. Hassell hangs sheers of brass whisperings, mostly long, wavering notes, but occasionally short melodic scales. Against that slight foundation rub the sounds of processed keys and synthetic rhythms, here linear and Western, there curved and Middle Eastern-sounding. If it ever becomes necessary for you to kidnap someone and keep them unaware of what continent they're on and perhaps what epoch they're living in, this music would be useful to you.

For listeners who have had the good fortune of being aware of Hassell and his music over time, there is obvious growth and progress in the work. His 1990 album City: Works of Fiction is almost confrontational in comparison to his current music, with much more pronounced hard rhythms and the odd jagged edge. (If you've heard the intro theme music he scored for the TV series The Practice, imagine that energy level sustained for nearly an hour.) But there is also continuity. Hassell says there's a clarity of thinking that comes with experience.

"Whereas I might have once agonized over this or that sound, these days I just say, ‘That one,'" he says. "You know how it is when you're in a store? Even after you've found what you're looking for, you feel the need to keep looking. It becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you allow your first intuition to be followed, the more it seems to work for you. Sometimes you have to find the courage to believe it's the right decision."