Jon Hassell: Vernal Equinox


This reissue of Jon Hassell’s 1977 debut album was very timely. It came just as the veteran experimentalist is having a serious health crisis back home in the US, amid the escalating Covid-19 pandemic.

Several erstwhile collaborators, including Brian Eno, have backed a fundraising effort to keep Hassell safe. He has a special place in the heart of artists that transcend the usual geographic, electronic/acoustic boundaries of contemporary music.

On the trumpeter’s Just Giving page, Eno describes how, over the last 50 years, Hassell’s fourth-world music “opened the way for a fresh look at, and deeper respect for, the music of other cultures”. One contributor to the appeal astutely comments that Hassell effectively “picked up some musical strands left by unresolved by Miles Davis”.

There’s certainly a direct line In jazz between Vernal Equinox and what we hear today in the music of contemporary horn players like Erik Truffaz, Paolo Fresu and Nils Petter Molvaer.

It’s an intoxicating and strange record that hasn’t aged at all. Despite our exposure to world jazz, nu-jazz and minimal electro mash-ups Vernal Equinox still sounds like it is from an otherworldly place, as if we’re making contact with a remote culture for the first time.

Hassell’s treated trumpet sound can resemble some sort of mythical messenger’s horn sending signals out over the cosmic mist. At other times, it’s like we are hunting in the rain forest and Hassell’s instrument is making animalistic call signs, as percussion rains down from the canopy. Hassell is a jazz player at all times however and his feeling for harmonic variance and line of improvisation is never completely abandoned.

Do yourself, and him, a favour – buy this record.

Toucan Ocean; Viva Shona; Hex; Blue Nile; Vernal Equinox; Caracas Night September 11, 1975 (51.16)
Hassell (t, elp); Andy Jerison (syn); Miguel Fransconi (bells, clave); Nicolas Kilbourn (mbira, talking drum); David Rosenboom (synth, pc); Nana Vasconcelos (pc); William Winjara (kanjira). Toronto & NY October 1976 – October 1977.

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