Jon Hassell: Fourth World and Balancing the North and South of You
Peter Freeman has been an instrumental part of Hassell's seeming reemergence in recent years (though the trumpeter truly never really went anywhere). The Los Angeles-based bassist first collaborated with Hassell on the final track to Dressing for Pleasure (Warner Bros., 1994)a track which, with its thick, sensual groove and darker textures, was in sharp contrast to Hassell's most overtly booty-shaking album, and one that would pave the way for the Maarifa Street group and its debut, Magic Realism 2, after a detour with the all-acoustic, Ry Cooder-produced Fascinoma (Water Lily Acoustics, 1999) where, while Hassell continued to explore his Indian roots with bansuri flautist Ronu Majumdar-Bansuri, he did so filtered through his own jazz prism, with unique takes of "Nature Boy," "Poinciana" and variations on Ellington's "Caravan."
"That was the first thing we [Hassell and Freeman] did together, that "Blue Night" bonus track at the end of Dressing for Pleasure," says Hassell. "Actually I got a lot more raw, more interesting things than actually came out on that record because I had had a guide into the netherworld of early hip-hop. There are lots of little secret things in that record. But yeah, that was the first thing that we did together and he certainly has changed things and moved things in a certain direction.
"It has been a bit of a good-natured struggle," Hassell continues, "in this recent situation, with two or three of the tracks [on Last night the moon came] coming from a concert we did in London just before we actually finished the mastering, with [drummer] Helge Norbakken and also Steve Shehan, another great, great drummer. I cut out some of Helge because what happens in general is, when bass and drums get together they lock in and start going someplace. I actually resist that groove thing because in a way it's so easy to do. And there are many little chips around with grooves already built into them, you only have to push a button to get it.
"And so it's kind of like inflation has come and the groove is not worth very much to me musically anymore," says Hassell. "And what's a groove to me is Pygmy or other forms of African drumming, where there's not an even division between the 8th notes and the cues are being had off of like, 'Oh, he hit that there, now I do this'that kind connective; that sinew, that muscle of the rhythmsomething which is always changing and beautiful. I'll do that for sure. But in terms of just kind of like metronomic grooving, I have to resist that. I think south of the border is one of the great places if you're going for groove, so I've encouraged Peter to be much more out of the metronomic background, as we can change the message to fit the groove.
"We'd sample these African hair drums that we carried with us, put it down an octave and then put these little pads and cork on sheet metal pads in the middle of the drum set and that would become the mixture," Hassell continues. And so Deano [J.A. Deane] would play and record patterns. It wouldn't just be like one hit and play it down an octave. It would be a little thing like [sings] 'be-ba-ba-bom.' And so that pattern would be worked into the rhythm but it wouldn't be necessarily metronomic. I'm just hearing where things fall for me, which is often not where the upbeat is; I'm just not feeling it that way. It doesn't have to be on the 'one'; that straightens out the curves and the curves are what makes it interesting. So there's been a big push for that.
While Power Spot was a fully finished album that was picked up by ECM, Last night the moon came represents the first time Hassell worked directly with the labeland label head/producer Manfred Eicheron a project.
"Power Spot's one of the few; Manfred doesn't usually like to take things that are done that way," Hassell explains. "And so [for Last night the moon came] he was there and we had a lot of technical issues. Basically we were going against the studio thing because La Buissonne is a beautiful studio with a beautiful room. And everybody was set up in the control room except me, so they could all relate and talk to each other in the room, because the bass was direct and the samplers were direct and the guitar was direct, etc.
"Manfred has ears and his sensibility, and the things that he latched onto were very revelatory," Hassell enthuses. "That's the first time I'd actually been in the studio with him. And he's great, he's absolutely great. In fact that first piece, "Aurora," on the record, that was actually his mix, which was very problematic, with me thinking, 'This doesn't work at all.' And he said, 'No, look at it this way.' So he took over the controls, so to speak, and you could see his acumen at blending and listening.
"Later on we went into a phase of not being able to get back together again," Hassell elaborates. "He's just incredibly busy, you know, constantly doing this thing or that. I wasn't really happy with the sessions in La Buissonne. My playing was way, way off because I'd been working on this choral piece for Norwich Cathedral, a hundred-voice choral piece. And I had learned Pro Tools in order to get that going. So I had spent two months just working on that just before the session.
"So I really was ill-prepared for it," Hassell continues, "and thinking I'd just go in and the magic would happen. But it didn't happen, it didn't really gel. So I really didn't know what to do with it and gradually, as we did more concerts and it came closer to [the release date], we had Sarah Humphries at ECM in New York start arranging the tour and we set a release date. Then we had kind of last-minute situation to make these things work. Peter has been really great in terms of the studio, so we went into his studio and started doing the enhancements and thingsdoing it pretty much like the process on Magic Realism 2, where it was like live mixed with studio.
"And so it came down to the wire and were thinking that we were going to go to New Yorkthis was just before Christmas," continues Hassell. "Manfred had a few days working another project and we were thinking we were going to go and mix there. But I think it was because Manfred hadn't realized exactly how much of a hybrid situation it was going to be, and we sent him a test mix or two. And he said, 'Peter, this is great. You don't have to come here. Just go ahead and finish it.' So we did that; and he made some suggestions about sequence and ordering."
Eicher is renowned for his ability to sequence music into a meaningful narrative arc, and was largely responsible for the track order on Last night the moon came. "That's pretty much his sequence," says Hassell. "But then [there were] things that he had already kind of accepted, like for instance there was a kind of half-assed version of the title track. I actually went over to [guitarist] Rick Cox's house and played solo over it, which became the final thing because I hadn't really found it when we were in La Buissonne. I was just sort of finding the right chord to make that magical sound with the repeating string chorus thing. So I went in just the last few days before we actually had to deliver, to do that.
"There was a lot of last-minute touching up," Hassell admits. "And then I threw out the North line that we had glommed on all these things. I had had this big idea about having thatI had made these sort of mega-sessions in Pro Tools with like a hundred tracks and the idea was to like make these wild mixes, like montage. It looked like wild mixes in which there would have been even more than one motif drifting between pieces, which is kind of a grand idea. But eventually only a very small part of that actually wound up on the record.
"So the big story is that it was all a last-minute grind," concludes Hassell, "a last-minute push to put these finishing touches on it. The performance in London was so much clearer and so much groovier and had the kind of vibe that I wanted. We put that in and put a few little touches on it. Manfred has ears wide open to new thingsI think that's a little identity problem that ECM has to deal with. Or maybe not; maybe not. Because if there's a New Series, and if you look at it globally, with the ECM cinema, with the Jean-Luc Godard releases, it's a much bigger entity. But seen through the jazz police lens, let's say, there's a certain box that has a certain sound. And Manfred is certainly aware of all the perceptions. So he had a lot to do with it spiritually speaking, guidance-wise, and for the first part of it, the initial few days [in Studios La Buissonne].