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Trumpeter Jon Hassell strikes cosmic-sexy balance

The musician and his band Maarifa Street, who'll be at UCLA's Royce Hall tonight, stretch the boundaries of jazz music with their hybrid sound.

February 13, 2009|John Payne

Trumpet player-composer Jon Hassell is an artist with endless enthusiasm for the ways music and art can connect -- he's best known for drifting ambient jazz that marries rhythmic and tonal sources from the ancient world with space-age digital technology.

But Hassell's relentless pursuit of a new kind of music means he's had to deal with quizzical looks when it comes to that old bugaboo of how to categorize his sound.

"People start talking about, well, is it jazz or not jazz or this and that," Hassell, 71, said with a smile recently at his home in West Los Angeles.

"I say, look, I'm a painter: I'm in a big loft, I have all the things around me that I've collected tacked up on the walls, in bottom drawers, etc., and these all fall into the category of things that I really like."

Tonight, Hassell and his band Maarifa Street will bring his indefinable sound to UCLA's Royce Hall, part of his first U.S. tour in 20 years, supporting his recently released ECM collection, "Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street."

Its unusual title, from a work by 13th century poet Jalaluddin Rumi, refers in part to the prolonged process of the music's conception and assembly, which took place in studios in the south of France and in Los Angeles.

"The moon is dropping its clothes in the street," he said, "I thought, well, here's one line that's completely cosmic and completely sexy at the same time."

That cosmic-sexy balance -- and his expressed desire "to make something which is extravagantly beautiful" -- has obsessed Hassell in one way or another since his student days. The Memphis-born musician grew up daydreaming about the music of Les Baxter and Eden Ahbez and went on to earn a degree in theory and composition at the renowned Eastman School and to study electronic and serial music with German electronic pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen in the late '60s.

Through his initial recordings with minimalist visionaries La Monte Young and Terry Riley, he met Hindustani raga master Pandit Pran Nath, whose teaching encouraged Hassell to invent a new way of playing his trumpet, one that would hybridize traditional jazz/classical technique with Pran Nath's tone-bending Kirana vocal style.

Hassell's goal, he said, is "making the world safe for pleasure." He explained how his influences have affected his pursuit of that goal in compass points.

"Stockhausen was North, in a sense the end of the kind of ultra-complexity, of a certain kind of intelligence -- even though he himself toward the end was doing pieces that sound quite Eastern. Pran Nath was South; he opened the window to looking at everything, hearing certain things. The world of Pran Nath was like an expansive ocean of possibilities."

For Hassell, the pursuit of ever-evolving music is important. Onstage, the music might have a comforting sensual flow, yet it can erupt and morph into scenes of utter unpredictability -- not unlike late-period Miles Davis and not unlike the cinema.

"More and more I try to utilize those, to learn from those moments," he said, "and try to introduce it into the live concert. I'm saying, 'Go for it, let that thing happen.' "

For this seven-date tour, Hassell has gathered a sympathetic troupe to spontaneously reinvent his mystically moody compositions. Longtime collaborator Peter Freeman joins on bass and laptop computer, Jan Bang and Dino J.A. Deane perform live sampling and electronics and Algerian violinist Khei-Eddine M'Kachiche adds to the perfumed air.

As for Hassell's own motivations, "It's always about making an ecstasy pill for me," he said. "Perhaps in a kind of reverse way, when things are bad you may want it more; you may think a place of ecstasy is even more valuable, more desirable and more therapeutic."



Jon Hassell and Maarifa Street

Where: Royce Hall, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles

When: 8 tonight

Price: $15 to $42

Contact: (310) 825-2101 or UCLA Live website

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