Jon Hassell: Vernal Equinox – album review

Jon Hassell

Vernal Equinox

Released March 20, 2020 on Ndeya Records


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At the same time punk rock was rewriting the rules so was trumpeter and musical conceptualist Jon Hassell with this beautifully realised debut album.

Like Johnny Rotten et al, Hassell effectively created a new genre, now dubbed ‘fourth world’, that its own understated way has been equally influential down the years. Hassell’s heavily FX treated playing over field recordings, echoes of jazz and what is now known as world music seem commonplace these days, but back in 1977 must have been a bit mind-blowing.

It certainly was for Brian Eno who worked on a later album with Hassell, used it as an influence on his influential My Life In The Bush of Ghosts collaboration with David Byrne and he even writes the sleeve notes for this long-overdue re-release fully remastered from the original tapes.

Hassell has worked with some of biggest hitters on the avant-garde scene, including Stockhausen and Terry Riley, which shows as he takes off in a new direction on opener ‘Tuscan Ocean’. Hassell’s horn playing weaves around the beats of Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos as the found sound of waves lap around the mix.

World music wouldn’t really hit the UK musical mainstream until the eighties, but Hassell is well ahead of that as ‘Viva Shona’ takes you deep into the rainforest, with birdsong tweets trilling around the trumpet and Vasconcelos on mbira.

‘Hex’ is fill of bits of percussion from Vasconcelos with added electric bass plus David Rosembloom’s synth pulses where you can really see why Eno was so taken by this album, and ‘Blues Nile’ is really eerie and droney, proving less can sometimes be more.

The epic title track at over 21 minutes dominates what would have been side two of the record. and brings together all the elements as the listener meanders with them along a river of sound. Hassell’s time in India studying with Pandit Parn Math is most evident here as he takes the melody to some really unexpected places, but his raga tinged playing is totally controlled, occasionally wailing, as you’re dragged back to Vasconcelos’ conga playing and Rosenbloom’s moody synths.

Vernal Equinox was once voted one of the best 50 ambient albums of all time, which sells it a bit short as it’s much more unsettling and dynamic than that, especially when Hassell’s trumpet really gets going. Like all great albums, one moment you are just relaxing into the textures before being rudely jolted back into a darker and much more challenging place.

You can follow Jon Hassell on Facebook and Twitter.

Review and photos by Paul Clarke, you can see my author profile here.

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