Listening to this new release from "Fourth World" trumpeter Jon Hassell, his first for ECM in 25 years, I pondered how much time and space (not unlike Einstein's "observer" theory) could affect a listener's perception. By all rights, anyone feeling the need to review music should be forced to listen inside a soundproof box at exactly the same day of day with the exact same temperature and light conditions, while eating and drinking exactly the same items. In fact the reviewer should never be allowed to leave the box (some would say the air supply should be turned off as well, I would imagine). The reason I say this is because I was driving through a wintry, sub zero landscape while listening to this, and the music seemed to be the perfect soundtrack for the eerie, somewhat unsettling world through which I moved.
Hassell's sonic explorations have always existed in a dream world that seems to be a montage of sounds floating through the subconscious. Although, he uses a fairly large group of musicians (the Maarifa music collective), the music is far from cluttered and seems almost to exist at a primal microscopic level, with the assorted musicians and tape loops swirling in and out of hearing. Whereas much "world music" combines music elements from different cultures into a still-recognizable format, Hassell takes disparate cultural influences and moves into an entirely new dimension (a Fourth World).
Bassist (and guitarist) Peter Freeman's bass lines often resemble Michael Henderson's bass lines from Miles Davis' 1970's work, although less intense and funky. Drums and percussion, provided by numerous members is subtle, pulsing beneath like a heartbeat. Guitarist Rick Cox, keyboardist Jamie Muhoberac and "live samplers" Jan Bang and Dino J.A. Deane contribute elements into the blend. Meanwhile, Hassell's electronically-treated horn (which also at times recalls Miles) provides most of the melodic lines in the manner of Indian tone-bending Kirana vocal style. He is joined at times by violinist Kheir-Eddine M'Kachiche in creating lines that are as much about creating texture as providing melodic content. The trumpeter and violinist's playing is microtonal and brings an Indian raga style to bear.
Although they seem to be highly improvised, this is not to say the compositions are formless, and part of the fun of repeated listenings is following the different threads. Most of the action is quiet and contemplative (a rather nice change of pace), although pieces like Abu Gil burn with intensity. Perhaps the most memorable piece is the beautiful title track, which spins slowly like a snowflake in slow motion and is enhancing the snowstorm outside my window as I write. There goes that objectivity again.
John Hassell and the Maarifa Street collective are touring the U.S. for the first time in 20 years in February 2009