Too complex and investigative to be considered merely ambient, too experimental to be simply world music, too globally focused to be avant-garde.
Jon Hassell’s Vernal Equinox, first released in 1977, is now reissed on remastered vinyl and remains a startling, at times otherworldly collection, as important now as it was when it first arrived, seemingly without precedent and fully formed. For Hassell, the ‘fourth world’ was a way of referring to a particular amalgam of Indian vocal styles, adapted by him for the trumpet, with instruments selected for their sonic qualities rather than geographic resonances, both married to advanced studio techniques. Through this methodology Hassell would become more familiar to listeners with his later albums, including Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics in collaboration with Brian Eno, and his work with the likes of Talking Heads, David Sylvian and Peter Gabriel. But where those later albums and interactions would hone his technique as a trumpeter to an instantly recognisible style, on Vernal Equinox there’s a sense that all of this is still up for grabs and that each composition has its own experiments to undertake and sonic line to follow.
The album’s six tracks each take a very different approach to the integration of western and non-western sounds and instruments, with album opener “Toucan Ocean” offering the most straightfoward sense of rhythm and tone, a single conga drum and shaker providing a simple pattern over which Hassell’s muted and heavily processed trumpet stutters and calls. Gently, over the track’s four minutes, the sounds of breaking waves emerge, a gentle organ offers soft chords and the entire piece fades, literally, into the ocean. “Viva Shona” mixes arrhythmic percussion and mbira with Hassell’s again-heavily-effected trumpet, the echoes and trills sustained and complimented by field recordings of bird calls. It’s the sense of gradually intensifying cycles, along with Hassell’s intermittent silences, structured to occur through the layers of sound but never simultaneously, that prevent the piece from collapsing under the weight of its compositional complexity. “Hex”similarly explores the possibilities of the mbira, adding shakers and kanjira to the percussive frame through which Hassell’s trumpet weaves and snakes.
“Blues Nile” returns to a more structured form, with drones providing a platform over which Hassell’s trumpet calls out and, heavily echoed and reverbed, provides its own reply. There’s more space here, the trumpets slipping away for long stretches leaving only the electronic drones to link the call-and-response trumpet motifs. The album’s centrepiece, the 22-minute “Vernal Equinox,” marries drones, goblet drums and congas in a slow sweeping evocation that suggests a wide range of non-western soundscapes without ever falling prey to aural orientalism. It’s in this piece especially that Hassell’s years of training with Pandit Pran Nath and the translation of Nath’s Kirana gharana vocal style into a compositional method are both most clearly heard. Where Nath would stress individual notes and a precise intonation, Hassell uses the trumpet to articulate spartan notes and small phrases, leaving, as before, space for the piece to flow around and over itself in a highly liquid way. Across the track’s length, no single instrument dominates for longer than a few moments, and while Hassell’s trumpet occupies a central place in the composition, it too is often buried in the rising and falling drone, or temporarily hidden behind the gently reverbed percussion. Finally, “Caracas Night September 11, 1975,” with its use of field recordings that sit beneath the trumpet and percussion, suggests a live musical moment captured unawares and, at just over two minutes, a single moment of life that contains a flash of art despite its small stature.
Vernal Equinox is a strange album to encounter without warning, too complex and investigative to be considered merely ambient, too experimental to be simply world music, too globally focused to be avant-garde. It is, of course, all of these and more and, at the same time, intriguing, fascinating, highly enjoyable and absolutely recommended.