Essential New Music: Jon Hassell’s “Vernal Equinox”

Maybe you first heard Jon Hassell on Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Peter Gabriel’s Passion or the two records that he made in the early 1980s with a little help from Brian Eno. Wherever you first encountered him, you probably couldn’t quite tell was going on; there was precious little precedent for the soft-edged, alien sound he got out of his trumpet. While his first album, 1977’s Vernal Equinox, preceded those aforementioned efforts by several years, it had been out of print for three decades prior to this reissue on Hassell’s Ndeya label. Hearing it now, the origins of Hassel’s music are easier to perceive.

The juxtaposition of burping, distorted electric piano and electronically harmonized trumpet on “Hex” owes a lot to the music Miles Davis made between 1969 and 1974. The winding melodies that Hassel played over a droning synthesizer on “Blues Nile” transpose the forms of Hindustani vocal ragas to an electronic environment. And the bird calls and hand percussion that surround his keening lines on “Viva Shona” evoke the experience of being immersed in a rain forest. But unlike so much music made by Americans inspired by the music of other places, you don’t get the feeling that Hassell wanted to drop by and take something away. Rather, he was trying to realize a sound world in which these elements could be synthesized into something unto itself.  

—Bill Meyer