Hearing his music, some might think it strange that Jon Hassell was actually born in Memphis, Tennessee. “I do play country music,” says the trumpeter and composer, who now lives in Los Angeles, “it just happens to be from other countries.”
Hassell, who once dubbed his distinctive style “Fourth World,” blurs Eastern and Western concepts in his music, along with standard notions of composition and improvisation. Ethnic traditions mix with new technology. He’s influenced avant-pop, world, electronica, new age and contemporary-classical music; worked with minimalist standard bearers LaMonte Young and Terry Riley; collaborated with Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and the Talking Heads; and inspired a notable list of European trumpeters. Hassell’s most recent disc, Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street, was released by ECM in February. It not only marked his return to the label after 25 years but also set him on his first tour of the United States in more than 20 years.
The music in Last night … has a cinematic feel. Sometimes it even suggests themes as characters, a storyline, flashbacks and recurring images. Did you think of film techniques while creating and shaping it?
Not in any conscious way. I do think in [cinematic] terms … but I’m not sure how that translates [to the music]. I don’t believe there’s anything technique-wise that I can say other than I was searching for a way to have one big piece rather than one self-contained piece with a certain numbers of motifs followed by another self-contained piece with a completely different set of motifs and then another and so on. I felt there was no reason for these motifs not to come back throughout the record.
As you’ve done on previous discs, in any given track on Last night …, you mix studio- and live-performance recordings. In constructing your work, how do you think about “studio” and “live”?
I almost don’t think in terms of studio versus live. We always have a big library of digital recordings of our concerts with most instruments isolated. So that convention of “this is a studio recording, this was recorded live” kind of belongs to another era, another frame of mind. I’m choosing freely between whichever is the best performance. It’s an enhanced live performance or an enhanced studio recording — whichever way you want to look at it.
This is your first tour in the States in more than 20 years. Why so long?
(Chuckles) Yes, everything has been in Europe. Basically, I’m an expatriate who lives in the country I’m expatriated from. We can talk about many cultural issues between Europe and the United States and this and that, but the short answer is: I wasn’t asked.