Hassell Free

The Rabbit was slow to come to Jon Hassell‘s Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street. The music certainly caught the attention of our floppy ears on first preview. But it was months past the February (’09) release date when we finally gave it serious airing–I’m late! I’m late!–and then mainly because we recognized Hassell’s influence on fellow-trumpeter Arve Henriksen’s Cartography, an album we truly admired. Sure enough, the recordings were two of a kind.

The danger here is misunderstanding who influenced who.  Hassell, of course, has the longer career, and Henriksen openly declares its effect on his work. But our study of  Cartography before we seriously listened to Last Night tended to confuse things. The similarities stood out.  The music from both is impressionistic, creating aural landscapes and establishing mood with repeated melodic lines and percussive phrasing. “Hypnotic,” “haunting” and other mesmeric words come to mind. Music of this type is often dismissed as background but careful listeners know better.

That’s when we started to listen for differences.  Droning backgrounds and electronic crackling give both recordings the impression of being of two ages. But modernism seems to win out in Hassell’s recording. Indeed, at least two of the nine musicians on Last Night are credited with performing “laptop” as well as more traditional instruments and a third is credited with “sampling.” Hassell’s trumpet, swirling through a mix of guitar, violin and percussion, often doesn’t sound like itself.

It’s tempting to label the ten tracks on the recording as “soundtrack” and start pulling out the movie screen images. Cartography certainly fits that bill with its emphasis on narrative and scenery shifts.  Last Night is more literate than visual (its title is drawn from 13th century Persian mystic poet Rumi) , more like a surreal novel in which plot takes a backseat to symbolic, psychic impressions. Indeed, we found it wonderful backdrop to readings of Jung. Hassell’s trumpet play, unlike Henriksen’s  speech-inspired phrasing, is more painterly, more about color, form and light.  The music seems to settle in the memory like a splashed canvas and , at times, can be just as gripping. If anything, it recalls the1970s  Pangea period of Miles Davis, especially in its thudding, Michael Henderson-like bass simplicity, airy percussion and unexpected electric guitar  chords.

Two pieces–both, disappointingly among the three not available for download at Amazon– seem to best represent the whole. “Abu Gil”, the recording’s longest piece at over 13 minutes is a shifting, East-meets-electronics version of Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”  It contains all the qualities that we find so attractive in this music, threaded together by a repeated theme. “Blue Period” is a languid, turquoise-colored dream with echoing keyboard, lush guitar and looped trumpet lines providing accompaniment to Hassell’s new cool. We don’t believe in top-ten lists (despite the fact that we’ve been paid to write many) but Last Night, as well as Cartography would both be on our short list of recordings that most reflected our mood in this long and troublesome year. We like to program one after another with Hassell leading and then sit back and feel the contrasts of our life bubble into the audible. —Cabbage Rabbit

Leave a Reply