Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Jon Hassell

Jon Hassell

Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street

The primary exposure pop audiences have received to the immensely impressionistic but entirely modern music of trumpeter Jon Hassell has come through brief, sustained bursts.

In 1980, he was part of the dense funk turbulence that circulated around Talking Heads' masterful Remain in Light (that's Hassell sounding the muted trumpet call during Houses in Motion). That same year, he teamed with Remain in Light producer Brian Eno for an ambient worldbeat blend that Hassell has referred to as Fourth World music. But the resulting album's title speaks directly to Hassell's sense of artistic mischief: Possible Music.

Nearly a decade later he became part of a similarly ambient but more decidedly Eastern musical collage that Peter Gabriel designed as a soundtrack for Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, an album subsequently released as Passion.

There is considerably more to Hassell's career than those run-ins with the art rock elite. But because the trumpeter records infrequently and will tour (briefly) this winter in the United States for the first time in 20 years, it is easy to allow his daring atmospherics to slip into the ether. Indeed, many of Hassell's recordings could be graphed in ways that reflect his artistic and commercial visibility. One minute, his trumpet rings through a spacious portrait of broken grooves and darkly woven sonic backdrops. The next, it disappears into that fabric entirely.

On a new album with the luxuriant title of Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street, Hassell modernizes further the ambient world around him. It is dominated by spacious music where trumpet, violin and strains of echoing guitar rise from, and fade into, a sea of sample-laden musical shorelines.

The album's 11-minute title tune reflects much of the album's sense of mystery. A two-note chorus seemingly filtered through processed strings (there's no telling how it was really created) is repeated like a mantra. Over a calming center, Hassell and his cohorts add electronic gurgles, glowing shards of keyboards and fragments of trumpet that alternately seek to sooth and puncture the otherworldly music.

The slow-motion montage Courtrais works from a similar makeup. Hassell's muted horn has a more sustained presence here, but he favors coloring a surface populated by chimelike keyboards and modest sampled drones — much in the way Miles Davis did on In a Silent Way, only without such direct grooves — than play conventional, compositional phrases.

Such moments are both warm and wintry. The album-opening Aurora suggests a return to Hassell's Fourth World concept with a faint air of Eastern percussion (that we can only assume was constructed by samples as no drummer of percussionist is credited) before the tune quietly implodes into a contemplative wash of keyboards that trumpet and guitar subtly augment.

On the closing Light on Water, with mock percussion again summoning a steady but synthetic rhythm, Hassell once more evokes the spirit and cool of Davis in a tune that sings a haunting, wordless melody. How apt. The album takes its lengthy title from a 13th-century Sufi poem by Jalaluddin Rumi. Its next line: “I took it as a sign to start singing.” And sing Last night does, in its own wondrously ethereal and indefinable fashion.