Sydney Morning Herald JUNE 5, 2009 - by John Shand


Spare a thought for the poor music vendor trying to work out where to put Jon Hassell's CDs.

Rock? Not really, although he has worked with Bjork, k.d. lang, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, David Sylvian and more. Ambient? Sometimes, including tracks with Brian Eno.

Electronic? Almost. He immersed himself in the electronic avant-garde and electronics are a mainstay of his sound. Jazz? Not quite, though he did start out as a jazz trumpeter and still plays at jazz festivals. Minimalist? See electronic. World? Nah, though he studied Indian classical music, has played with Ibrahim Ferrer and Ry Cooder and appeared at WOMAD. Classical? No, even if he did study composition exhaustively and his work has been performed by the illustrious Kronos Quartet.

The truth is that Hassell has made his own genre. His originality is partly the result of a long gestation period, working with such music pioneers as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Terry Riley and La Monte Young and then studying with Indian singer Pran Nath.

"A concept of what you really want and what you really like takes you a while to get to," Hassell says from his LA home, "unless you happen to be born with a guitar in your hand in Mississippi, or some similar kind of folkloric thing where the instrument, the person and the voice all happens together. For me it was very much about just feeling my way, getting rid of all the cultural givens and what you're told you're supposed to like and getting down to what really speaks to you.

"Then having the courage to put them all together in a way that no one has really done before, because that invites obscurity!"

Unsurprisingly, he believes the tired old genre names have reached their use-by date, likening the state of music now to modern cooking: "Fusion cuisine is about combining familiar things in unfamiliar ways, like a watermelon and tomato salad."

Hassell makes his Australian debut at Eno's Luminous festival, during which he will also appear in a public discussion with Eno, including about Hassell's forthcoming book, The North And South Of You.

"It's fundamentally a projection of the global on to the body and the body on to the global," he explains. "The global situation has developed with the so-called developed world in the north and in the south the so-called underdeveloped - broad brush strokes, of course!" he adds, remembering he's talking to an Australian.

"In the body the north is about abstraction and is developed, in a way, and the south is about sensuality and is undeveloped in a certain way. The relationship between the north and the south is something like the microchip verses the samba. At the end of your life if you were to say which one of those would you rather have spent more time with, I think the answer for everybody should be 'doing the samba'."

Hassell likens the relationship between himself and his band, Maarifa Street, to that between a film director and an actor: "If you have a body of work which other people gravitate towards, so in a sense they start to perform your vocabulary, then of course as individuals they bring something special to that in the same way that a Robert De Niro would add to a [Martin] Scorsese film. It's hard to separate. Where do you slice the creativity in that?"

Right down the middle, probably, just as Hassell does genres.