(NDEYA RECORDS; 2020 reissue)
Some artists stubbornly resist pigeonholing. I could put any number of Jon Hassell records on (and I have a fair number) at a social gathering, and I’d bet that at least one listener would come up and say, “What the heck is THIS?” It’s strange music, that’s all. And being helpful by saying “it occupies a space between ambient, Miles Davis-type jazz and world music” may or may not prepare the uninitiated. Hassell himself would eventually start branding his recordings as “Fourth World,” to signify a kind of foreign, multi-ethnic sound that, while centered around his very distinct trumpet style, would also take you somewhere new. A sort of “traditional” sound from a country that doesn’t truly exist.
His first official album was VERNAL EQUINOX, which initially came out in 1977. It has now been remastered and reissued on Hassell’s own label. It’s kind of a disorienting little beast of a record, but it was original enough to catch the ears of Brian Eno, who wrote liner notes for this edition. Eno, of course, would go on to collaborate with Hassell on POSSIBLE MUSICS in 1980, and to produce a few records for the artist after that. For whatever it might illustrate, the noted music website Pitchfork included VERNAL EQUINOX as one of their “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” (it was listed at #47). And the evocative, often spacious quality of Hassell’s compositions does indeed fit comfortably into an ambient (albeit the edgy reaches of the genre) mode.
Most of the six pieces here are exotic, a bit misty-sounding and in thrall to the otherworldly timbre of Hassell’s trumpet. The instrument is sometimes processed to sound either partially muted, or vaporous, wafting through the air of whatever planet it’s coming from. “Viva Shona” features birdsong and sparse background instrumentation, the trumpet placed front and center. “Hex” lets Hassell carry on a very distinctive conversation, his tones developing in such a lively manner that you listen close to catch the amazing process as it evolves. What sounds like rainstick and bass adorns the background. Most listeners will be especially riveted by the two centerpiece tracks “Blues Nile” and the title track. The former piece gives us a slightly distorted, granular-sounding drone over which Hassell delivers sonic bursts that sound for all the world like a warning or “call to attention” for the citizens of an alien culture. Could be a pending invasion from that tribe over the hill! The clear separation between the trumpet and the sharp-edged drone is dramatic and compelling. Around the climax of the piece, Hassell lets loose a series of notes going up and down the scale of his chosen key, and you’ll likely stop whatever you’re doing to listen closely. As for the nearly 22-minute “Vernal Equinox,” it’s thoroughly engrossing, setting up a sparse but hypnotic landscape of background drone, hand drumming and a casually meandering trumpet, as though Hassell were patiently walking a lush rainforest trail, stopping to observe here and there but recording his observations in music with great passion at appropriate intervals. It’s a marvel, this track. I can only imagine the reactions of listeners encountering it for the first time. Things finish off with the short closer “Caracas Night,” with nocturnal nature sounds and some Miles-style blowing to bid you adieu in a slightly more traditional manner. It’s not a long album, this outing, but it will definitely make you feel like you’ve been somewhere.
Hassell’s later outings with Eno would bring him more acclaim (POWER SPOT is one of those distinct offerings), and there is more textural richness on the dramatically titled THE SURGEON OF THE NIGHT SKY RESTORES DEAD THINGS BY THE POWER OF SOUND and DREAM THEORY IN MALAYA, to name just a couple of gems. But it started here, with …EQUINOX. He’s a genuinely visionary player who took a much featured instrument and did things with it no one had ever done before. That takes a special kind of musicality and love of exploration that should certainly be celebrated.