Maarifa Street – Jon Hassell
Lebel Bleu 6674
Back in 1980, Brian Eno, in the middle of his hot streak, donated some of his artistic capital to nudge Jon Hassell out of obscurity. The disc in question, with the typically portentous title Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics, put the spacier side of jazz-rock through the same ethnic/minimalist filter that Eno was applying to Talking Heads’ punk around that time. On top of it all was Hassell’s trumpet, which seemed like some strange modified instrument which shaped his breath into a pitch but produced no tone.
Since then, Hassell, usually sans Eno, has kept up a slow but steady stream of similar releases. His trumpet sound has regained some body and his accompaniment has become more First World-ish, but the end results have been similar to that 1980 release. Back in the ’80s, Daniel Lanois once said that he would have liked to produce Miles Davis; Maarifa Street sounds like what might have happened if that collaboration had come to pass.
Throughout Maarifa Street’s 60 minutes, Hassell orates over Peter Freeman’s bass ostinatos and a subtly shifting mass of percussion and keyboard textures, with a few vocal cries from Dhafer Youssef for contrast. Freeman’s tone, reminiscent of Jah Wobble on PiL’s Second Edition, reminds one that Miles’ On The Corner-era music didn’t make its impact in jazz; instead, its influence spread to the post-punk, dance/ambient crowd Eno marshaled. Maarifa Street, though, does away with the menace of those Miles and PiL albums, choosing instead to evoke a relaxed multicultural dreamworld.
It's tempting to conclude that Maarifa Street capably achieves a modest goal. Hassell’s liner notes, though, mention a goal that’s not modest at all: to suggest alternatives to "the no-to-life piety of fundamentalism East and West." Perhaps it’s best to say that, whatever the rhetoric, the musical gesture is modest, and that it would be nice if more world figures shared this music’s taste for understatement.