Jon Hassell: Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street (ECM 2077)

Last night the moon came

Jon Hassell
Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street

Jon Hassell trumpet, keyboard
Peter Freeman bass, laptop
Jan Bang live sampling
Jamie Muhoberac keyboard, laptop
Rick Cox guitar, loops
Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche violin
Eivind Aarset guitar
Helge Andreas Norbakken drums
Pete Lockett drums
Recorded April 2008, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Bailla
“Courtrais” recorded live in Courtrais, Belgium
“Abu Gil,” “Northline,” and “Light On Water” recorded live at Kings Place, London, November 2008
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Jon Hassell
Mixed by Peter Freeman in Los Angeles, Nov/Dec 2008

Not only does Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street carry the most evocative title in the ECM catalogue, it also closes a 25-year gap between trumpeter-composer Jon Hassell’s first label date, 1986’s Power Spot. About said title, one need only know it comes from the poetry of 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi to find insight into the music it indicates. Rumi’s embodiment of spiritual evolution is, much like Hassell’s artistry, a parthenogenetic organism: it nurtures itself, grows with and through itself over time.

Last night the moon came… is in many ways the ambient underbelly of Nils Petter Molvær’s Khmer and is sure to enchant fans of the same. The soupiness of his sound is in full effect here, opening to an attunement of the cosmos that uses sun flares as its ink and comet tails as is brushes—a sound honed over eons and realized through the breath of an artist whose own universalism speaks in cosmic, singing electricity. Yet the more we listen to this music, the more we realize it comes from a space within rather than without, a space found not through the telescope but through the microscope.

The presence of violin, for example—courtesy of Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche, whom Hassell encountered on SIWAN—is a deeply biological one. M’Kachiche’s ghostly mitochondria snake their way through an outer-to-inner progression that smoothes within earshot in the introductory “Aurora” and fades from it in the pale of “Light On Water.” At first, the trumpet is tucked safely away in some inter-dimensional pocket, making its first appearance only in the appropriately titled “Time And Place,” a fraternal tone to the violin’s sisterly wisdom. With the music’s x- and y-axes thus established, we have free fall.

Balance of the unplugged and the wired, of matter and ether, continues throughout. The sense of patience is nocturnal indeed, the song of Hassell’s instrument multifaceted and luminous. The overall effect is one of perpetual exhale. Tasteful applications of instruments mark the path with cohesive memories. Sections such as “Clairvoyance” trace their development by the same clock yet spin their tails in more subterranean designs, diurnal and flowering, while the bass of “Courtrais” throbs just overhead, yielding like a suspension bridge during an earthquake. Purely descriptive moments are rare. Rather, the flow proceeds by way of feel. “Blue Period” is perhaps the closest we get to a painterly aesthetic, the height of Hassell’s reach evoking a bird of prey surveying the territory below as if it were its own body, splayed and stretched to the span of a continent. Like the drumming in the album’s concluding steps, it makes fleeting contact with land, shifting from shadow to shadow, half here and half gone.

The word “atmospheric” was invented for music like this.

Jon Hassell: Power Spot (ECM 1327)

Jon Hassell
Power Spot

Jon Hassell trumpet
J. A. Deane percussion, alto flute
Jean-Philippe Rykiel keyboards
Michael Brook guitar
Richard Horowitz keyboards
Brian Eno bass
Richard and Paul Armin RAAD electro-acoustic strings
Miguel Frasconi flute
Recorded October 1983 and December 1984, Grant Avenue Studio, Ontario
Assistant  engineering: David Bottrill and Roman Zack
Produced and engineered by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois

American composer and trumpeter Jon Hassell is best known for his music of the Fourth World, which he describes as “coffee-colored classical.” The definition becomes clearer once you immerse yourself in the sounds of Power Spot. Hassell’s career is as varied as his education. A student of both Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pandit Pran Nath, he is known for overlooking idiomatic barriers in favor of something far broader. Nath left an indelible mark in Hassell, who turned to the master’s voice for guidance in his own playing. His unmistakable tones are achieved by singing into the instrument, thereby drawing clusters of sounds from a single exhalation. This recording is significant for a number of reasons, not least for indicating a moment in sonic history in which the electro-acoustic universe was beginning to spin some of its richer, more majestic galaxies. The music on Power Spot radiates like a supernova waiting patiently for the traction of celestial bodies to fan its clouds away, revealing softly spinning globes of breath and vapor. With such evocative titles as “Wing Melodies” and “The Elephant And The Orchid,” one feels almost overwhelmed by the range of possible imagery. And yet, like any question of mode or genre thereof, these words disappear behind the music’s waterfall.

At first listen the album may seem to blend into a broad wash of sound, but lean in closer and you begin to hear the details emerge. The title track is perhaps the most potent, opening this portal to a wellspring of beats and train whistles. Brian Eno’s amphibian bass slithers through a pond of liquid mercury, fading into the gaseous darkness from which it sprang. Otherworldly connotations are bound to reveal themselves, and nowhere more so than in “Passage D.E.,” which sounds like the soundtrack to a documentary of some undiscovered planet. Notable also is “Miracle Steps,” where live percussion provides marked contrast to the synthetic overlay, drawing in the process the album’s most beautiful cartography.

Power Spot is one protracted aerial view, a bubbling primordial soup of circuits and blips, funneled through such progressive sense of direction and atmosphere as only Hassell can activate. Unlike much of the knob-turning to grace the many electronic albums of the 80s, its sound is strikingly effusive and organic. In this ocean, one finds that the light of life shines brightest on the inside. It is a light that no clouds can obscure, a light that no darkness can close its eyes around. It is a journey of transience, of transport, of futurism and antiquity, of none of these things. Influential? More than words can say. Just listen to Paul Schütze’s Stateless, or the works of countless others who’ve clearly drunk from the Hassell font.

A perfect specimen.