Dusted JANUARY 15, 2015 - by Bill Meyer


When it was first released in 1980, Possible Musics was a record with a few jobs to do. It presented trumpeter Jon Hassell, an associate of Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and Pandi Pran Nath, to an art-rock audience that had never heard of him but was willing to give anything with Brian Eno's seal of approval at least half a chance. It also proposed a kind of music that combined recent First World musical and technological innovations (jazz-rock fusion, minimalism, electronic accoutrements) with Third World sounds, both popular and traditional. And it was supposed to make Hassell, who had already had an empty bellyful of the scarcity that comes from working in the non-popular arts, some money, which is why Eno's name went on the front cover rather than just the credits on the back. It's worth looking at how it accomplished each of those tasks, but also worth considering what it has to offer listeners three and a half decades after its initial release.

The record did its first job quite well. Partly as a consequence of his association with Eno, Hassell went on to a long recording career during which his combinations of electronic processing and organic grooves, and his knack for creating a particular musical atmosphere, has exerted a palpable influence upon musicians like David Byrne, David Sylvian, and Nils Petter Molvær. And while one can neither credit nor blame Hassell for solely originating an idea that was already brewing (Don Cherry for one was ahead of him), he not only helped to get the onslaught of multicultural combinations rolling, but showed by example how to treat material from other cultures as essential ingredients rather than mere seasoning. Without access to his bank book, it's impossible to say if this record directly benefitted Hassell's bottom line, but having it in his discography has definitely made it possible for him to have the career he had.

But how does it sound right now? After all, things have changed a bit. In 1980, Hassell had a line on something that most of his audience did not. An American record purchaser was doing well if he or she could find one Fela Kuti record in one store in town, and you knew you were in a cosmopolitan metropolis if that record didn't feature either a member of Cream or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Now, Fela's complete works on CD is one online credit card transaction away, and there's a wealth of music from Africa and elsewhere that is equally available. Nowadays even a casual downloader likely has a much broader set of references than the people who checked out Eno because they liked his crazy synth playing with Roxy Music, his production work with David Bowie, or Another Green World.

The music on Possible Musics has enduring merit in itself. Hassell's trumpet tone here, which is simultaneously as organic as breathing and as colourful and technologically enabled as a lit-up TV screen, sounds plump and beautiful as it negotiates the spaces between the electric bass and hand percussion. The short pieces are vivid and memorable, but the way they lead into the twenty-one-and-a-half-minute long final track makes the record feel like a single piece that you can (if you play it in some digital format) profitably leave on all day, getting lost in the sparse grooves and hearing new details. And the music exhibits a willingness to not fill up empty spaces that Hassell hasn't been able to exercise on his own. The static quality of Eno's guitar and synthesizer contributions places a mote of stasis within Hassell and company's slow-moving sound-streams. I guess he earned that co-credit after all.