Jon Hassell

Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street

Trumpet player Jon Hassell is one of the true pioneers of modern music, having played with enigmatic microtonal drone godfather La Monte Young and on Terry Riley’s minimalist masterpiece of the late 1960s, In C, before becoming a student of Indian vocal guru Pandit Pran Nath and finally evolving his own distinctive breathy, sensual, gliding trumpet style as a result. He then went on to record perhaps the most incredible albums of the early 1980s – records that still sound like nothing else on the planet – a beguiling mix of tambora-esque drone backdrop, carefully-processed trumpet, peculiar shimmering moires, and organic ‘world music’ samples the size of atoms. It’s the sort of music you could imagine Blade Runner or Jabba the Hut getting stoned to, music you honestly could not place in terms of era or location, a visionary, near-alien melting-pot of sound.

With his trademark ‘eye-shadow’ effects-laden trumpet and utterly unique playing style (likened to playing a conch shell, and using glissandos you might expect to hear in Indian vocal music alongside various little subtle textural ornamentations) Hassell has a sultry, truly global, sound like no other – he is in a place similar, perhaps, to where Miles Davis could have ended up had he not gone overboard with the drugs.

To help the journalists, Hassell calls his sound ‘Fourth World’, to reflect the combination of the sensuality and physicality of hot, humid, so-called Third World countries with the sophisticated technology and abstraction of our cold, often dreary lands in the (over)intellectual north. His work with Brian Eno has brought him a lot more attention than he would perhaps have had otherwise (not to mention work with Talking Heads, David Sylvian, Bjork) but even today he remains a relatively elusive character, lurking on the more fertile fringes of popular culture and, if not subtly influencing a great deal of it, certainly doing much of the pioneering groundwork.

Listening to new album Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street is a predictably immersive experience. The textures and dreamlike nuances are so subtle and deep that you might worry about getting the bends if you switch it off. Much of it washes over the listener unless you really give it your undivided attention, or at least lie down and stop pottering around the kitchen. It has the same dichotomy as that of Eno’s Ambient music – delightful and ignorable in equal measure. It’s up to the listener how close to the bottom of the ocean you want to go. That’s probably the point – and on repeated listening you begin to pick out little motifs and abstract curves glistening beautifully beneath the often-intangible surface. To begin with, the opener ‘Aurora’ and the title track seem to be by far the most emotionally engaging works, yet a few days later you find that little vapours and gases from the other, more unusually structured, pieces have woven a web somewhere deep in your subconscious, like memories you can barely grasp.

However, on occasion the other musicians on the record create a slightly emotionally bland, obtuse and over-digital-sounding ‘ambient space jazz’ backdrop for Hassell to work with, lacking in the organic qualities that make his best work so vivid and enduring. ‘Abu Gil’ is the notable offender – at times the meandering becomes so abstract that it’s hard to engage or focus. Perhaps I just haven’t gone deep enough yet. Another thing worth commenting on is that this is an album on the ECM label and it is a very ECM-sounding record, far more so than Hassell’s other ECM release, 1985’s Power Spot. It would be interesting to know how much influence ECM chief Manfred Eicher (also credited as co-producer here), had over the project.

These are minor qualms, of course. This is a good Hassell album and even a bad Hassell record is nothing less than fascinating. It’s also evidence that the 72-year-old’s finger is still very much on the pulse and that his forthcoming book is likely to be an absolute belter. Anybody can pitch-shift and harmonize a trumpet in a little bedroom studio today – back in 1978 it was a hands-on, physical job that took hours of sweaty deliberation and the most cutting edge technology. Now that practically all music outside of the Radio One sphere could be described as ‘genre-defying’ or traditionally uncategorisable, it’s perhaps harder to appreciate how alien this ‘melting-pot philosophy’ used to seem.

It is also interesting to consider what the world of music might have been like had it been Hassell all tarted-up making strange noises for Ferry and Co, engineering Bowie albums and utilizing the sort of resources and budget that befits a man of such ability and vision. He might, at the very least, have had the good judgement to sacrifice a new en-suite bathroom in order to tell Coldplay where to go.

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