Making Minneapolis Safe For Pleasure : A Fractal Appreciation Of Jon Hassell

Hassell effortlessly secures Belgrade’s surrender in ’06.

Any attempt to peg whichever of Jon Hassell’s 18 solo releases as his “best” is bound to fail. Though some components of the trumpeter and composer’s m.o.–including his incomparable command of breath, generous yet measured deployment of electronics, and penchant for populating richly chorded, undulating environments with motifs apparently snatched from some maternity ward for cosmic archetypes–never fail to manifest, he’s simply covered (and cultivated} too much ground, water, air, and fire to allow for easy comparisons, even with himself.

Though a pastoralist at heart, Hassell favors cities for day-to-day business.

Even his genius for reconciling apparent contradictions never plays the same way twice. But at the very least, Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street stands as one of his most thoroughly conceived and fully realized world-building experiments to date. More biome ranch than document, the album offers a deliciously exploded view of Hassell’s lush inner world, where cobblestone alleys and moonlit rainforests mingle in a lasciviously slow explosion of texture and color.

Hassell sometimes surprises himself, but fans? Always.

Currently touring the US for the first time in two decades, Hassell performs (with peer-group backing band Maarifa Street} at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, February 12. When, a few weeks ago,, Minneapolis Star Tribune music editor Tim C ampbell graciously offerred me money to interview him, I accepted without hesitation, despite being scared half out of my Darth Vader boxers by the prospect.

Hassell gets personal.

Why? Hassell knows and understands more about music than any randomly selected group of 300 people, even one selected from the combined faculties of Julliard, Berklee, and his alma mater, Eastman. To make matters more terrifying, he aggressively ignores genre constraints: For him, studying Indian classical music under celebrated vocalist Pandit Pran Nath and hip hop under celebrated Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee are but two sides of the same coin…and Hassell’s coin collection could keep an arcade busy for weeks.

Hassell’s theme for “The Practice” won praise from “TV Guide.” The closest John Cage came to attaining such heights was winning on an Italian quiz show. No contest.

Scariest of all, dude’s encyclopedic knowledge is hardly limited to music. Hassell reads widely and often and has exactly the kind of film expertise you’d expect from a culturally voracious Los Angeles resident accustomed to working with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders. Plus, as David Toop reveals in his magisterial Oceans of Sound, Hassell’s love affair with the Internet commenced back when most of us wouldn’t have known a fast connection from Dita Von Teese. By ’96, he’d already predicted the rise of pretty much exactly the historical-period-immersed communities that only started forming for real after Second Life’s launch a few years ago.

David Sylvian utilized Hassell’s genius well before the likes of Ry Cooder, Ani di Franco, Bjork, and Bono followed suit.

Speaking of Toop and Teese, they make a perfect set of fake polar coordinates for mapping the opposition between intellect and sensuality that informs Hassell’s work. Easily the English-speaking world’s greatest living music writer (and a highly regarded musician and composer in his own right), the former–a huge Hassell supporter since the ’70’s–seems all intellect until you start to grasp the passion behind his every gesture.

Toop and Bjork talk singles.

Burlesque queen, fetish goddess, and former Mrs Marilyn Manson Teese rolls in exactly the opposite direction, approaching the pursuit of pleasure with surgical precision. That Hassell moves in both (and a few others) at the same time enormously broadens his work’s appeal. He’s a sensualist’s sensualist possessed of more than sufficient intellect to leave a generous opening for instinct in his work, an intellectual with enough intuition to feel hidden affinities among wildly divergent cultures,, and a futurist using present-day tools in the service of ancient rituals.

Hassell and Maarifa Street reinforce their household name status in the Czech Republic.

Most of all, Hassell is smooth, smoother than Kenny Loggins and John Legend combined, smoother even than the President, occasionally making him an object of suspicion among experimental music lovers of the “no pain, no gain” school. “How can anything so easy on the ears have any value,” they ask, not realizing that Hassell does make room for suffering and tribulation…just beyond the point where his musical narrative ends and racism, greed, and fear of sex, adventure, life–fear of everything, actually–reinstate their grip. As for Hassell, the only thing he might possibly fear is stasis.

Compared to Hassell, Loggins and McDonald might as well be Cannibal Corpse.

It’s this fearless smoothness that makes the telephone love him so. I didn’t interview Hassell; we had a conversation, touching on everything from the music of the Aka and Babenzele Pygmies to sexuality and its place in his his forthcoming book: The North and South of You: Making the World Safe for Pleasure. Had we but world enough and time, I’d relate it in its entirety, but we (I, at least) don’t. ‘Sides, I have a broken arm, meaning I’m doing all my typing one-handed with pain as a constant companion. But death itself couldn’t dissuade me from making it to Hassell and company’s performance…especially as another 20 years could easily pass before his next show in Minneapolis.

Hassell and Seal strike a mighty blow for smoothness.

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