[Review] Jon Hassell: Vernal Equinox (1978)

Electronically treated trumpet ragas featuring the sounds of nature and primitive synthesizers.

Kronomyth 1.0: Equinox and no one answers.

It’s a long series of left turns in life that leads you to listening to Jon Hassell’s Vernal Equinox at four o’clock in the morning. From there, it’s down the rabbit hole in earnest… microtones, pandit pran nath, motorola scalatron and bosanquet. All of it sounds wonderfully erudite until you replace the words “karlheinz stockhausen” with “jango fett” and realize that you’ve accidentally wandered into the music school equivalent of a Star Wars BBS.

If I don’t get jazzed about chromatic scales, pity me my dull existence. I’ll grant you that a world with the music of Jon Hassell in it is a more interesting place. On this, his first album, Hassell introduces the elements that would more or less define his music for the next four decades: electronically treated trumpet ragas interwoven with natural sounds (birds, insects, water). Sometimes, this music feels like “elephant jazz” (Viva Shona) or what might have happened if Miles Davis had traveled with The Beatles to India. (Actually, a lot of things might have happened during that trip.) I’m sure that’s an oversimplification of all the chromatic goodness going on, but I’m a simple man with a limited lexicon and an apparent saturation point for listening to a bagpipe being run over endlessly by a golf cart.

Again, probably worth reiterating here, I enjoy the music of Jon Hassell. It’s otherworldliness feels magical. In fact, as I was writing the words “melted music bubbling in a witch’s cauldron” to describe what I was listening to, I noted that the song was called Hex. Clearly, Hassell had cast his spell over the listener as intended. A lot of avant-garde music can feel arbitrary to the uninitiated, but Vernal Equinox doesn’t simply appear and disappear; it arrives at its appointed hour in its appointed place. We simply need to stand still and listen, although stillness in this world is hard to come by unless it’s four o’clock in the morning and the whole house is quiet.

One of the more interesting aspects of Vernal Equinox is its array of primitive synthesizers. (I say “primitive” when in fact they were very complicated machines with knobs and wires protruding everywhere.) The Serge synthesizer, Motorola Scalatron (which literally had to be the first name they thought of for it) and Buchla synthesizer are more likely to be encountered in a museum than the liner notes of a record album. They serve two purposes here: to provide a drone backdrop (“Similar to a tanpura,” he wrote from the rabbit hole) and transmute the trumpet and keyboard sounds being played by Hassell. It’s here that the primitive and futuristic elements of the music are alchemically transformed into a new kind of future primitivism that Hassell later dubbed fourth world music. (Ooo, that’s me getting all pedanticky.)

The meeting with Eno was probably eenevitable, collector of oddities that he is, and Eno’s electronic treatments elevate the music by one imaginary notch. Yet it’s clear from Vernal Equinox that Jon Hassell had already set himself upon a unique path that would lead through the undiscovered lands between Eastern music and Western jazz. It is the dreamsleep of Africa channeled by an Indian spiritualist and recorded through an electroencephalogramophone.

Original elpee version

A1. Toucan Ocean (3:42)
A2. Viva Shona (7:04)
A3. Hex (6:20)
A4. Blues Nile (9:51)
B1. Vernal Equinox (21:56)
B2. Caracas Night September 11, 1975 (2:10)

All songs written by Jon Hassell.

The Players

Jon Hassell (trumpet, Fender Rhodes piano), David Rosenboom (mbira, rattles, table, dumbek, Buchla synthesizer alteration), Nana Vasconcelos (congas, shakers, talking drum, bells) with Miguel Frasconi (claves and bells on A3), Andy Jerison (Arp synthesizer alteration on A3), Nicholas Kilbourn (talking drum and mbira on A3), Larry Polansky (special Rhodes tuning), Bill Winant (kanjira and rattles on A3). Produced by Jon Hassell; engineered by Michael Brook, Andy Jerison, David Rosenboom; mix engineered by Rich LePage.

The Pictures

Jacket design by Ariel Peeri.

The Plastic

Released on elpee in 1978 in the US (Lovely Music, LML 1021).

  1. Re-issued on compact disc in 1990 in Canada (Lovely Music, LCD 1021) and Russia (Ars Nova, LCD 1021) with different cover.
  2. Re-released on remastered ultimate high-quality compact disc in 2020 in the US (Ndeya, NDYEA2CD) and Japan (Ndeya, BRC-634).

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