Perfect Sound Forever

Jon Hassell tribute

Michael Brook interview
by Jason Gross
(October 2021)

PSF: What did you think of Jon's work before you met him?

MB: I don't think I knew his work before I met him. I believe that he recorded that first album [Vernal Equinox] at York University [Canada], where I met him. I think Miguel [Frasconi] was involved in that.

Jon came to as a guest lecturer to York and I was a teaching assistant in the electronic music program. Part of my duties were to help guests who came there- they would usually do some kind of performance. But I wasn't directly involved with Jon.

PSF: How did you start working with him?

MB: I actually don't remember how I started working with him but I kind of became part of his band and toured with him and then worked on his some of his recordings that he did for Possible Musics.

PSF: There was live performance ("Griot") that was used for that album where you're playing bass and others are doing clapping. Do you remember that performance?

MB: Oh yeah. That was at the Ontario College of Art. I was playing bass but I was also mixing a bit then. Eventually, I ended up doing the mix for the band and the house on stage and then I would do treatments and live sampling with these electo-harmonic digital delays. But I think at that concert, Biran Eno was doing treatments with Richard Henderson. I know I played bass on that track but I might have done some other stuff there too.

PSF: How was Jon organizing the music for a show like that?

MB: Well, he had this phrase which came out quick a bit, about 'structured improvisation.' There would be some aspect of composition that was pretty determined, like maybe what key it was in. Sometimes, we would use a backing tape on a cassette- it could be a drone, but it could also be the sounds of the jungle or something like that. And then, different people would be assigned different roles in each piece. So on the one that ended up on that record, I was playing bass. I might have played guitar on some of the other tracks. You had a role to do but usually, it wasn't like you were supposed to play a specific part. It was more like, maybe I would do volume-fade guitar on one piece and things of that nature.

PSF: You worked with him on the Dream Theory album too. How was that different from working with him before?

MB: Well, when we did that record. It was at the end of a tour where we were in Europe or Japan. But we went straight to Daniel Lanois' studio in Hamilton and stared working on Dream Theory. And I know that Jon had some samples of Pygmies and a water drum thing that he wanted to use in the compositions. And technically, all of those things were way more challenging than they are now. And then, I think Brian [Eno} was there for some of it. There was an element of exploration in the whole process. Nothing was fixed. It was more, 'let's see what happens if we have this loop of someone playing the water drum.' And we developed parts or treatments for things and Jon would figure out what he would want to play on it. But Jon's background with [Indian singer/instructor] Pran Nath was very much based on the Indian approach to structured improvisation where what would be pre-determined would be the raga, and anything else was kind of up for whatever was happening in the moment.

PSF: When I interviewed him last year, he was saying that one of the most cherished items was a tamoura that he got from Pran Nath. It's interesting to hear what an influence he remained for Jon after all those years.

MB: Yeah, it became part of fundamentally of who Jon was musically- that side of things. I think Pran Nath was the only person he always had praise for. [laughs] And I think he was drawn in to him in many ways.

PSF: After touring with him for a while, did his role or style as a band leader change at all from your point of view?

MB: I don't recall it changing that much. But certainly there were new ideas that were being explored. But the way they were being explored didn't really change. And it was one of those things where some nights, it was unbelievably magical and incredible stuff happened and other nights, it was a little bit dead. It relied on some sort of emotional intensity that people just can't get 100% of the time. That's sort of the risk element of the improvisation part. If something's completely structured, you're kind of guaranteed a certain minimum of something but if there are open elements- some days you win and some days you lose. [laughs]

PSF: Based on what you just said, what do you think his success rate was with doing those live shows?

MB: Pretty good. I would say the dull moments happened, but they were few and far between, and mostly, it was quite good and occasionally, it was really magic. But I would say it was successful.

PSF: Power Spot had a new band- Dino, Jean Philippe and you now on guitar. How did you see the change in the recording and how Jon was working with a new ensemble like that?

MB: I think Power Spot, a lot of that might have been derived from live recordings. We were touring Europe in the early '80's and we recorded each concert and I think some of it ended up being used for Power Spot but I don't think we went into a studio. We only went into a studio once and I think that was also for Power Spot too because Jean Philippe was around and Deano. So that would have been recorded mostly in Hamilton at Dan Lanois' place, 'cause I remember being in Hamilton with Deano.

PSF: Did the band's dynamics change with having these new people?

MB: Yeah I think it did. Dino, he brought in a certain sort of funkiness, a little more of street sensitivity to things. And Jean Phillippe is a keyboard virtuoso, an incredible player. So things did change because they sort of had a stronger musical presence as characters. And I guess you can hear the difference in the albums. I don't remember kind of noting it at the time- it just felt like, 'we're just doing stuff' and the context changes a bit and the personnel changes. But in terms of the tasks, they were roughly the same. And the processes.

PSF: Surgeon of the Night Sky again had you, Dino and Jean to work with. How was recording that different/same from Power Spot?

MB: I suspect that the Night Sky album was based on recordings around the same time or some other pieces. I mean to say that some of the material might have been live and some of the studio material at that time made it on to Power Spot and some of it made it on to Night Sky. I don't remember us going into a studio again unless we did additional touring and I always recorded the concerts and I know some of that ended up on albums.

It wasn't like somebody had a bunch of songs and they said 'I'm going to record these songs for these albums,' and then they get a new bunch of songs and it's going to be for that other album. It was a more porous type of situation and also a track could be started in one time and then maybe just some elements of that is kept and used for another project. It was a bit amorphous, the whole process.

PSF: That speaks to the unique way he worked.

MB: I agree.

PSF: For the Surgeon record, it says 'recorded were assembled and processed June 1987 at the Wilderness Studio, Woodbridge, UK.'

MB: Yeah, that was Brian Eno's studio. And I wasn't involved in that, I don't think. I was doing my own albums more around that time.

PSF: As I'm looking through the notes again, it says that the recordings come from July 1986, January 1987, May 1985 and May 1986. So, that tracks with what you said- they took the recordings from before and then they put them together in the studio.

MB: Yeah, I was staying at the Wilderness... I moved to England in '85 and I helped Brian set up his studio maybe in '86 or something? But I don't remember working on Jon's stuff at the Wilderness.

PSF: It looks like Brian and Jon put together the material in 1987 based on recordings from '85-'87.

MB: Yeah, that makes sense.

PSF: This is fascinating. His process was so complex. You really need some serious detective work to unravel it.

MB: You do! [laughs)

PSF: Sulla Strada was done with you, Nana, Miguel and a group of speakers. It almost sounds like he's revisiting some of his earlier music there. What do you remember about that?

MB: Hardly anything! I wonder if that was also based on earlier recordings. I'm trying to remember when I stopped working with Jon. I think it might have been around '85 or '86. I don't think I did new work with him after that. So I wonder again if it started with earlier recordings. The great thing about Jon's stuff is that it really doesn't age so that would be my theory on that.

PSF: Actually, that makes sense since it does sound like some earlier pieces and then having the narrators' voices over it.

MB: Right!

PSF: What was Jon like on a personal level?

MB: I would say he occupies the ends of the spectrum of human character more than anyone I've ever met, in the sense that... Some people, they're mostly this way and then a mood or something will happen and that changes some aspect of their character, usually temporarily somewhat. But Jon was a genuinely supportive helpful person. Kind. And at the same time, a sort of bullying asshole to people. And resentful. But, he was both of those things and most people tend to be more at one end. They occupy a narrower part of the human spectrum of character than Jon did. And so he was both- a jerk and a wonderful person. I'd never met anyone who had those sort of polar opposite characters as much as he did.

PSF: When I spoke to him, he could be nice or demanding about what others said and how he was perceived.

MB: Yeah, he really suffered because of his concern about how he was being perceived. There's no doubt that most of his music is really great. And I think part of the problem for him might have been that he would, with some validity, equate himself with people like Brian Eno or David Byrne, who both of course had a greater public presence and were richer and all that kind of stuff. I think where he maybe made a little bit of a cognitive error is that although no doubt he was completely a musical colleague and equal, they came from the pop world, which he dabbled in a bit, but he never really spent that much time in it. And that's where I think they benefited a lot. And I think Jon sometimes felt that he wasn't getting his fair share, but I don't think he acknowledged the reason they were getting what they were getting was because of different reason. Not because their music was better or because they stole from him or whatever.

PSF: I got the same impression that there was a bit of mixed emotions thing- he appreciated the support from Eno but wondered why he was sometimes just seen as a collaborator of his. And I agreed with him- it was unfair. He was his own unique entity and should be seen as a distinct artist.

MB: Yeah. He's not going to get as big a spotlight just because the pop world has bigger spotlights. [laughs]

PSF: And frankly, his music was more esoteric- not meant for a larger audience. I totally respect him for following his own muse and not necessarily trying to get a huge audience and made a huge lunge towards it. I had total respect for him for being faithful to his own path.

MB: Yeah, and I did too. Aesthetically, I completely agree and I actually think he did the right thing and I'm not sure he had a lot of choice on a certain level. It was kind of his muse and he was strongly tied to it and that's part of the equation of where the magic came from, I think. And then I think also, you look at people like La Monte Young or Terry Riley who on a certain level probably achieved a larger public presence.

But also sometimes, I think Jon could have been his own worst enemy. He burned bridges with people and it was sort of paradoxical in some ways that maybe because of his resentment, it might have interfered with him getting more of a public spotlight. Because people might say, 'oh, I don't wanna work with this guy... I don't wanna help him.' That kind of thing.

PSF: Thankfully, like you said, he did follow his muse. No one else did what he did. Others followed that path but they couldn't do it the same way he did.

MB: I agree and I think unfortunately, on a certain level that maybe with time, Jon may get more attention. But it's too late for him personally.

PSF: What kind of effect do you think Jon's work may have had on your own work?

MB: I think when I first started thinking of doing a solo record and I think I to a slightly embarrassing degree, I picked up on some of his style things, melodically. Although I was a big fan of Indian music before I met Jon and that kind of ornamentation... But I think in my first album [Hybrid, 1985], I hear some things where you can hear how Jon influenced that and that's fine. That's how it works in culture. And then I kind of moved in a different direction and my own stuff had a smaller exotic factor. And then I think after that, with my first album, it was more influenced by working with Brian and learning to use essentially treatments as part of a composition and what is the now the cliché of the studio being the instrument. But that sort of became a much bigger part of my own work. And it was on the first album, but not as much I would say after that.

PSF: What do you think Jon's legacy might be?

MB: (pauses) Well, I think the main thing for me, and I haven't listened to his music in a while, but what I always felt was... in some ways, it was more the way he played trumpet that was the big thing for me. And that it was so soulful and expressive and emotional, but being very subtle and often very gentle, which is in a way, nobody played trumpet like that I know of. Maybe some people copy him now but he completely used the trumpet in an unprecedented way that would have been hard to predict. And he played very quietly. I don't know if you ever heard him play but often when we were traveling, on an airplane, he would just have his mouthpiece and was just practicing. But it was like a whisper- if you were three feet away from him, you couldn't hear him. And that kind of dedication and discovering new territory for an instrument, that is great- what he did wasn't great because of the novelty factor (although that happened to be there), it was great because it was so expressive and emotional and moving. I think that's in a way personally, that's what remains with me. And compositionally, it was interesting but not as notable, I'd say.

And I don't mean it to sound like trying to diminish him in any way- just that what he did with the trumpet sounds almost like sort of like a gymnastic or mechanical thing. And it wasn't at all- it was a way to express things emotionally and musically that were, to a large extent, were a new territory. Surely, you can see the things that influenced him but he took it to a meaningfully new and interesting place.

PSF: That comes back to what we were talking about originally where he might have said his playing was his way of imitating aspects of Pran Nath's work.

MB: Oh absolutely. And that's an interesting thing about Indian music culture- in certain ways, it's played in a rigid system but then every once in a while they're very open to things. There's a mandolin player I worked with named U. Srinivas from India and he plays electric mandolin but he became accepted in their classical world as a completely valid participant. And yet that instrument didn't exist but he was regarded as a completely valid classical Indian music musician. We did a couple of albums together on Real World. One was a traditional classical one [Rama Sreerama, 1994] and then another one was a collaboration [Dream, 1995] with a few other people, and Nana Vasconcelos [percussionist who played on Hassell's early albums] actually played on that record.

And I think in the same sense, Jon found a way to participate in that tradition in an non-traditional way but I don't think he had that many people in India that are aware of him. But there was a validity in his participation that respected that ancient, classical culture.

Learn more about Michael Brook's work at his website

See the rest of our 2nd part of our Jon Hassell tribute

Also see the 1st part of our Jon Hassell tribute, with additional interviews and more

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