Jon Hassell on Embracing Global Pastiches and Magic Imperfections...
A song by a hip-hop artist in England samples a drum part from a decades-old American R&B record. It ends up on a French movie soundtrack that someone later downloads and resamples for an art installation in Japan. This is the world of musical dislocation in which we live—the one that Jon Hassell helped create.
Hassell’s unique trumpet style combines elements of the big bands and blues he heard growing up in Memphis, with the Indian vocal inflections he studied with Pandit Pran Nath. A true innovator, he worked with live sampling in the early ’80s—before the process even had a name. In those days, he played through an early AMS harmonizer, using an Electro-Harmonix 16 Second Delay to loop his trumpet parts. His cohort, sampling pioneer J.A. Deane, triggered an Electro-Harmonix Instant Replay—a primitive sampler—to reproduce percussion parts that he played live or loaded in from Walkman cassettes.
On his most recent album, Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street [ECM], Hassell employs a state-of-the-art Eventide H8000 harmonizer and Deane uses LiSa X sampling software. The result is a score for a world that has finally caught up with the trumpeter’s multi-culti genre bending.
Last Night… features an international cast of musicians in true post-modern fashion—rarely in the same room at once. Hassell and his cohorts assembled many tracks from far-flung studio locations spanning London to Los Angeles. “The method shouldn’t control the content,” Hassell says. “Wherever the spark is, wherever the feeling lies is where I go. Whether or not it is a collage of samples or of a live track alongside a studio track is secondary.”
The nuts and bolts of that method are largely the province of bassist/co-producer Peter Freeman. “If someone did a great keyboard part on the Montreal version of a piece, for example, and I liked my bass from the Paris version, we would composite the parts,” Freeman says. “In some cases it sounds like Jon and [violinist] Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche were playing off of each other, when, in fact, it didn’t actually go down that way. Through careful choices and sensitive mixing, you can create that impression. As long as it works musically and has the right emotional arc to it, we don’t care where things come from.” In what might be a mantra for our modern age, he adds, “Everything is an element and everything can be manipulated.”
The record’s live and studio material includes J. A. Deane or Jan Bang sampling bits of performances by Hassell, Freeman, and M’Kachiche, and radically processing those audio samples as an integral part of the music. Live shows were recorded to an Alesis hard-disk recorder or Pro Tools. “It all ends up as WAV files, so the recorder we use doesn’t matter,” Freeman explains. “The dry bass and trumpet get their own tracks, in case I want to process things differently or fix stuff. The effects have their own channel as well, so I have the option of using the effects from a concert, adding to them, or not using them at all.”
The studio sessions began in France, at Studios La Buissonne, with Freeman playing bass to some sampled drum parts sketched out by Jamie Muhoberac on a keyboard. Everyone recorded directly into Pro Tools|HD with Mytek converters. “I had them rent the SSL XLogic channel for my bass, and for guitarist Rick Cox. I love its solid-state compression,” he states.
“The studio in France was made for acoustic recording,” Hassell says. “It was a great room, but everybody was set up in the control room, going direct—I was the only one in the big room.” Despite the quality of the room, he was unhappy with his performances and they were only used on a few tunes; the remaining trumpet tracks were taken from live shows, save for one that Freeman recorded at Cox’s house in Venice, California.
“We decided that we would record the part on Jon’s Pro Tools LE system, on his laptop,” Freeman recalls. “I rented a Lucid A/D converter and a Neumann U 87 microphone. We used Jon’s Amek preamp, going from the preamp into the converter, then S/PDIF into his Mbox 2. We did two takes and that was it. We monitored with the effects but actually added them later so we could have more control.”
Additional recording and mixing was done at Freeman’s Los Angeles studio on a Pro Tools|HD 3 rig, with five 192 interfaces. The multiple interfaces allow outboard signal processors and preamps to have their own sends in Pro Tools without having to use a patch bay. This gives him instant access to his huge arsenal of gear, and automated recall of all hardware inserts. “I just have no patience for patch bays,” he says.
Despite all the sampling and processing involved, Hassell’s tunes bear little resemblance to the synchronized dance grooves of much electronic music. “On the live track of ‘Abu Gil,’ I would normally have tightened up certain things, but we decided to leave it alone,” Freeman admits. “There was some magic that transcended certain rhythmic details that normally I would have ‘fixed.’” “Courtrais,” too, was left loose. “That was a little improv in a Belgian town,” Hassell says. “People were coming in and I felt like starting. Peter played a bass line, which he later wanted to ‘correct,’ but I said, ‘Don’t do that, it has the feel.’”
Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street is all about feel. Hassell’s breathy, evocative trumpet, and gorgeous textures—some derived from a Wim Wenders soundtrack he did almost a decade ago—make up compositions that don’t typically begin or end, forcing you to relax and feel the beauty that can reside in dislocation.
It is not that Hassell is immune to the confusion caused by sounds being sampled, resampled, and processed. “One of the standard jokes in the sessions was, ‘Who is doing that?’ The source material has been built up over the decades; I continue to use things as if I were a little culture unto myself,” he says. “Things can drift from one piece to another, from one record to another, from one epoch to another. When you put something in a new context, it becomes renewed in some way.”