Jon Hassell: Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) — richly conceived soundworlds

Jon Hassell’s 1977 debut Vernal Equinox was reissued earlier this year, garlanded with terms like “seminal” and sleeve notes from Brian Eno praising the US trumpeter’s “dreamy, strange, meditative music”. He is now 83, an age when retrospectives and appreciations dominate discussions of a musician’s career. This laudatory attention is double-edged: respect is laced by the implication that the work is over. But Hassell isn’t done yet.  In 2018, he ended a nine-year wait between albums of new material with Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One). Its follow-up is Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two). Both records are inspired by the visual arts term “pentimento”, which describes a change made to a painting while it is being created, hidden by the artist under new layers of paint. Over time, as the paint fades, these secret signs of alteration can show up on the canvas. 


Hassell’s version of this effect, made in collaboration with various musical accompanists, is based around a contrast between formlessness and shapes. Ambient hums and drones stretch into the distance, a gently undulating electronic landscape. Against this horizontal plane, patterns emerge. Some take the discursive shape of contemporary jazz, as in “Delicado”. Others have a world-music aspect, like the wind instrument melodies blowing through “Fearless” — a reminder of the 1980 album that he made with Eno, Fourth World, Vol 1: Possible Musics, which fused ancient and modern musical styles from around the world (or an invented globe).

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