One perhaps unusual compliment we ought to pay to Jon Hassell’s new Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume 1) is that, like all of his music, one grows impatient having to write about it while listening to it. This music — which I want to never end when I put it on — is too seductive to be looking at a computer screen while trying to come to terms with its intriguing charms.
The veteran composer-trumpeter-theorist Jon Hassell is the great creator of connections. He’s an artist with uncommon intuitions about how music, visual art, language, history, food, scents, “culture,” the body, the brain and just about everything else forming our beliefs about human nature can be viewed as individual threads in a single, very large fabric, and how that fabric might be endlessly rewoven. Hassell has called what he does “Fourth World,” a way of music that crossbreeds rhythmic and tonal wisdom from the ancient world with the very latest in digital technology, along with evolved conceptions of form, texture and harmony; his music is both composed and improvised, reconciles Eastern and Western, and increasingly Northern and Southern. Fourth World music and methodology have been hugely inspirational, to put it politely, among the hungry hordes of electronic, New Age and world-music artists of the last 20 or so years, owing primarily to the widespread influence of Hassell’s collaborations with Brian Eno, Bjork, Peter Gabriel and other luminaries of the “progressive” rock/pop mold.
Always in search of new ways to further mutate his music away from its roots in jazz and contemporary classical or “new music” aesthetics and ideologies, Hassell recently found a fresh trigger for creative expansion when he happened upon the art term pentamento, roughly defined as a visible trace of earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas. He kept this idea in mind when for Listening to Pictures he compiled and transmogrified via digital manipulation, added instrumental parts and lots of editing (wiping away, smearing in the process) several years’ worth of tracks in his database — much like a painter, but more like a musician.
While re-composing pentamento-style might sound on the surface like fancy other-wordage for what we all know as a remix, these pieces go far beyond the standard beats + random sounds = music formula that typifies the majority of remixing efforts (and which often result in several too-little-varied versions of the very same thing). In fact Hassell’s new pieces are fascinating if only to witness Hassell discovering genuinely new music within his own past works — and of course examining his self (at least his musical values) in the process. These tracks are also quite interesting for longtime Hassell followers to hear how many of their old fave tunes have resurfaced with new hats and a touch of mascara. So the sound is often a bit familiar, like a remix, but really feel in that respect like a welcome return of sounds whose potential use was possibly only just touched upon before.
The opening “Dreaming” starts with a sunset vibe wherein a rush of low-register distorted bassiness gives way to loops of languid e-piano chords, Hassell’s well-known harmonized trumpet (via digital harmonizer) and smallish electronic effects in the background to create on ongoing wash of intense atmospherics; some cutting-edge version of a dub-style editing/mixing approach foregrounds the soaring trumpets and synth lines, which sort of glissando around your head — and immediately you’re sucked in by this at very least texturally very persuasive and identifiably Hassell-ish music.
“Slipstream” employs, as do most of the album’s tracks, an intro and/or semi-continual base of skittering percussive beats as might be heard on Hassell’s collaboraton with Burkina Faso drummers on the 1988 Flash of the Spirit album; he cuts in, daubs and sprays it over with billowing, breezy synth and keyboard clouds that remind us that the Memphis-born Hassell’s own musical roots lie not just in post-Miles jazz and Stockhausen-era avant-garde electronics but in the lush, heady exotica of Les Baxter and Martin Denny. These latter two fellas are not musicians we’d normally associate with “good taste,” but these, well, tasty harmonies, textures and melodies inspired in part by them remind us why Hassell’s ear for the fertile combining of tones is justly famous. (Basically, musos, you’ll hear just plain fabulous chords throughout.)
Meanwhile “Al-Kongo Udu” features dazzling string-sample waves that flow like the soundtrack to a vintage adventure film, langorous, alluring, mysterious. Over percussive stuff and a continuous digital glitching of the piece’s otherwise seductively languid (not lazy) flow, it traverses numerous emotional terrains over its course, best of all ending up in a totally different place than where it began its journey. Other tracks such as “Manga Scene,” “Ndeya” and “Her First Rain” range in effect from the quite challenging melodically but always sonically (texturally/harmonically) alluring; the percussion bits and often stately simple trumpet lines, some synthetic random-noise generation, ambiguous sampled sonorities plus augmented bass and keyboard parts are woven together painstakingly, obviously, and always, always, this elegant cool prevails, a stylish cool, a brainy cool, a previously unknown cool.
And it’s all a little bit like watching city life, from behind a window or glass door or right out there on the street: Things are happening, and they’re not necessarily malign. We hear for ourselves the rich possibilities in contriving connections — or disconnections — between the events in our lives that give some semblance of shape to our world.
John Payne writes about music and film at publications including Mojo, The Quietus, Red Bulletin, Drum!, High Times and Bluefat; he is the former music editor of LA Weekly, and the author of the forthcoming official Diamanda Galás biography Homicidal Love Songs and editor/co-author of Jaki Liebezeit: Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer (Unbound, summer 2018).