Somnambule - Writing About Music

Jon Hassell - Maarifa Street (Magic Realism 2)

The 68 year old Memphis-born trumpeter has traced a singular path over the last four decades. A student of both Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pandit Pran Nath, Jon Hassell played on the first version of Terry Riley’s In C and LaMonte Young’s Dream House 78’ 17”. Since releasing his debut as leader in 1977 he’s worked with Talking Heads, Brian Eno, David Sylvian and David Toop among a host of others.

The journey to Maarifa Street from its predecessor Fascinoma has taken six years: an appreciable interval in which the likes of Nils Molvaer, Arve Henriksen and Erik Truffaz have forged solo careers influenced to varying degrees both by Hassell’s ideas and playing style. Two years before Fascinoma, The Vertical Collection presented eleven tracks made up entirely of samples of Hassell’s back-catalogue reconfigured, with the trumpeter’s approval, by Peter Freeman who supplies bass and programming on Maarifa Street. The outcome was comparable to the shuffling of a Tarot deck: same cards, different outcomes. Although the approach potentially signalled a new level of introspection, a fascination for the sampling of resonant external sources was already woven into the DNA of Hassell’s oeuvre, in the call of night creatures on Vernal Equinox or the amalgam of pygmies, gamelan and exotic ‘50s orchestrations on Aka Darbari Java.

Maarifa Street (‘maarifa’ means knowledge or wisdom in Arabic) in part represents a further act of taking stock. Small elements of earlier pieces are intermittently deployed as semi-structural elements or tonal shading. Thus, the edgy rhythm of “The Gods, They Must Be Crazy” from 1994’s Dressing For Pleasure intermittently cuts into “New Gods” while “Darbari Bridge” rearranges various elements from 1983’s “Aka Darbari Java”. The impression made by this recursive approach is initially unsettling as the familiar elements attract attention away from their new settings. At the same time the core thrust of Maarifa Street at first proves elusive. It would be easy to listen superficially and conclude that this new work merely rehashes old ideas for want of inspiration. Attentive listening, however, reveals a much more subtle undertaking that gradually suffuses the mind like a mixture of scents both familiar and foreign, earthy and delicate. The insertion of motifs from previous recordings invites contemplation of the Zen Buddhist concept of the Eternal Now as well as questions about the motive force of innovation. These sonic keepsakes also tease playfully at the memory, forcing the listener up and out of the immediate moment into unexpected reminiscence. They also act as shared territory between past and present and serve to reinvigorate the earlier music. However, most of Maarifa Street is newly recorded music which conveys the impression of gossamer-like veils floating gradually to earth. These layers are flecked through with contemporary electronic sounds and occasionally Dhafer Youssef’s heartfelt yell, which is firmly located in the middle distance.

Maarifa Street is the product of three concert performances and extensive studio reconfiguring that has resulted in a hybrid form more complex than its untreated parts might otherwise have offered up. Alongside the sonic and temporal weaving, Hassell also stirs in a number of references, primary among which is his dedication of the album to the late Mati Klarwein whose painting Crucifixion illustrates the sleeve. Touchingly, the field recording of sheep bells that rounds out “Open Secret (Paris)” was captured on a visit to the painter’s Mallorca home. Combined with Youssef’s oud playing this evokes images of a prelapsarian idyll. Hassell’s own playing throughout is as rich and sensual as ever, his sound floating over and through the music like a gulf stream current or autumnal Saharan wind. The closing “Open Secret (Milano)” features a duet between Hassell and the Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu, whose open playing evokes the spirit of Miles Davis. The resulting music is at once eery and beautiful, backward and forward looking: a suitable conclusion to Jon Hassell’s thirteenth album.
Colin Buttimer
March 2005
Published by The Wire