Perfect Sound Forever

Jon Hassell tribute

Jeff Roma
interview by Jason Gross
(August 2021)

Before I had met Jon, I knew a couple of his records. I was such a huge Brian Eno fan when I was younger (well, still am). So through that I knew John's music, and sound. I had Possible Musics and Power Spot. Two brilliant, wonderful, and engaging albums. For me, they were such ear-openers!

I got to work with Jon through a friend who had sold Jon a looping pedal, and got to talking about me. I was doing a lot of experimental electronic music at the time, and just starting to dabble in film scores. My work was nowhere at the level of Jon, but he was curious and called me up. I spent a couple of days hanging out with him at his house in West Hollywood, getting to know each other and talking about music, audio gear, what we were listening to at the time, etc. He was just starting on a new album (City: Works of Fiction) and asked me to be a part of it. The rest of the band (Greg Arraguin, Dan Schwartz, and Adam Rudolph) was already formed.

Jon thrived on collaboration. He wanted to inspire the other musicians playing with him, and in turn wanted to be inspired by them in equal measure. It was a constant feedback loop that kept bringing up more and more creative possibilities. On City, for example, Jon, myself, and the rest of the band would cram into his living room and jam for hours. Jon would often have some interesting musical germ to get us started, but it was freeform from there. He recorded every minute of our explorations and improvisations. We'd pack it in and a few days later, he'd have us come back and gave us each an edited version with just the parts he really liked from the previous session. The idea was for us to go home, listen and learn the parts he chose. We would all meet back at his house for another improvisation session that took those favorite elements of our previous session and build and grow them from there. A kind of musical distillery, if you will. Week after week, we would do this until there were some very solid ideas, and eventually they became the various tracks on the album. These weren't compositions in the traditional sense, or even in the jazz sense, but concepts with a some sonic elements, rhythms, bass lines, melodies, and a tonality to be used as much or as little as we wanted. His music is a living, breathing thing that can change and grow forever, and would very much change as members of his ensemble changed.

By the time we went to a studio in Hollywood to record the album, we knew each piece intimately. Even as we started to record, there was experimentation at all times, but there was a solid identity and language to each piece. I handled the sampling, synth programming, and played electronic percussion and keyboards. Jon had his battery of sounds, his trumpet, his looping pedals and harmonizer, and everyone in the band had developed specific sounds and phrases that became the basis of each track. Over a period of a few days, we recorded each piece over and over, in highly extended form. Editing would come later.

Jon took a few days in solitude to pick his favorite takes from the recordings, and with some edits that became the basis for mixing. It was during the mix I started experimenting with some "dub style" techniques - bringing musical elements in and out in sudden and unexpected ways, creating solos, drum breaks, and adding some structure to the pieces that wasn't there before. The entire band participated in mixing, even bringing their instruments in case Jon decided to add a little nuance here or there, or fill in some blanks. Once all of that was done, Jon and I set up in my tiny apartment in Silverlake and spent another couple of weeks not just editing the mixes more, but also re-sampling entire sections of the tracks through some audio effects, and creating the final album from those. It's amazing how much came out of that final phase, even though it was completely unplanned. But that was part of Jon's genius, letting things happen and then guiding it once it takes hold even a little.

Jon was a complicated man. I think he was "cool" in the same sense that a Miles Davis was cool. I enjoyed him very much and we had a good rapport both musically and personally. It can be difficult to separate those two facets with Jon. He certainly knew his accomplishments and value in the ambient (if that's the right word) music world, and often wondered why he wasn't as well-known as some of his very successful colleagues and contemporaries. It frustrated him his whole life. He also had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He was an intellectual thinker, and was an avid reader and writer. He was engaging, articulate, self-assured, and was very funny. He never shied away from criticism of culture he deemed shallow and especially music. He loved to talk, sometimes would love to argue, but when you presented him with a good idea, or solved some kind of problem on a track, he was incredibly complimentary.

Beyond just his catalog of amazing music, Jon was a pioneer of the use of world music (primarily African drumming) as part of a genre-less, free form new music that incorporated elements of ambient, jazz, electronica, and one of the most unique styles of trumpet playing ever. His incredible and unique use of electronic looping pedals and harmonizers (which he manipulated like a virtuoso) were as distinctive as his signature melismatic trumpet tone. Within two or three notes, you can know it's Jon playing, even on other people's music. His mastery of Indian vocal technique as applied to his trumpet, his love of minimalism, ambient sound and music, jazz, some avant-garde composers, African music, hip-hop, and his mind bending openness to experimentation and fusions, is utterly magical. He disliked the idea of genres, as he never fit into any one record bin ever in his life. He was a musician's musician, and so many artists have been influenced by his music and his playing. He leaves behind an indelible mark on modern music.

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