A half century into an odyssey that's seen him work with musical prime movers such as Terry Riley and Brian Eno while pioneering his own distinct lane of so-called fourth world music, composer-trumpeter Jon Hassell is still active and vital at 81. His latest album, Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume 1), finds rhythms from around the globe (courtesy gamelan, udu drums and more) grounding meditative electronic soundscapes while his trumpet floats in and out of the ambient proceedings, with melodies emerging like images in shifting cloud patterns that disappear just as quickly as they become identifiable. (With that in mind, it's fitting the album is dedicated to late painter Mati Klarwein, the ingenious artist whose work appeared on the cover of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and Santana's Abraxas.)
Talking to Billboard one afternoon over the phone, Hassell is voluble and reflective, readily waxing on everything from his early days to his deep love of Miles Davis' jazz-funk classic On the Corner – except when taking a break to make sure his equally vocal dog, Hendrix, isn't harassing the gardener too much.
Laughing about an acid trip with members of Can and opening up about some of the "scars" left from his association with Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life In the Bush of Ghosts, Hassell is candid in a way that comes naturally to those who've lived life on their own terms. He also speaks with the comfortable authority of a musical expert who's been in the trenches for decades; sure, some academics may be able to match his musical knowledge, but he's been a participant in, or front-row viewer to, numerous pieces that have propelled avant-garde music forward – not something those confined to campuses can usually say. On the other hand, while a professor has learned to edit their musings down to readily digestible soundbites or theses, Hassell isn't quite as used to tailoring his thoughts to a mass audience; he happily darts from postscript to postscript, flitting off on whatever biographical or musical detail catches his fancy at a moment's notice.