Thursday, February 11, 2010

Jon Hassell. Last Night The Moon Came Dropping its Clothes in the Street (2009).

Jon Hassell has been doing pretty much the same thing for over 30 years, yet he always sounds up to date. I wouldn't say that his most recent CD, Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street, is necessarily "stripped down," since that would imply something is missing. But it's almost as if Hassell said to his band, "Let's make a groove, now take away the 97% of stuff that isn't necessary." It's like listening to ice melt. It's cool, it's light, but also deep and dark. Hassell plays and composes like a natural phenomenon. Imagine you're in a forest, listening to the play of wind, birds, creaking trees, distant noises. It may coalesce into something like a concert or composition, but it's your brain making sense out of gentle chaos. Hassell is elemental that way. Ideas are dropped and evaporate in a perpetual hazy present. The way time is kept in these tunes is remarkably subtle. Bassist Peter Freeman mostly keeps a hesitant pulse, while the drummers, Helge Norbakken and Pete Lockett, have more of an ornamental and filigreed relationship to time.

Part of Hassell's genius is with whom he chooses to play, and how, I suspect, he coaches his collaborators to proceed. I'm thinking of his album, "City," which made monumental and occasionally aggressive statements. Twenty years after that release, he plays with different personnel but some of the same sonorities appear to be revived, now evolved into the most ethereal of forms. His current band, Maarifa Street, are marvelously sympathetic to Hassell's vision of sound.

A good friend and jazz aficionado told me connoisseurs value a player's tone almost above the notes they play. Hassell's tone is certainly part of his music's appeal. Ghostly, and disembodied, it's like a wordless, vibrato-less, mezzo-soprano, or an alto flute. His style of playing epitomizes the disappearance of the artist, at the same time affirming the intelligence he imparts with the power of a few well-chosen notes over a flurry of tones. North African violinist, Kheir Eddine M'Kacich, achieves a gentle vocal style as well, and beautifully matches Hassell's approach.

Hassell has always been inspired by the real world, yet his sound has always been other-worldly. Now he seems to be playing from some plane beyond reach. If it sounds silly to use descriptions like that, and much too new-agey, Hassell's music forces you to confront the limitations of language. One is tempted to be effusive, while the music remains ineffable.

"Fourth World" is a term Hassell has used for decades to describe his "continual exploration of ways in which exotic musics from the tribal cultures of the Southern hemisphere might be fused with the technological possibilities of the Western World" (from the Jon Hassell website). That "continual exploration" has led on this disc to an incredibly refined and empyrean realm.

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