Jazz innovator Jon Hassell’s latest release, Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One), his first in over eight years, is at once easygoing and incredibly complex. A figurehead of the experimental jazz and electronica scene for a number of generations and collaboration partner of icons like Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel, Hassell has honed his craft and ideas through the frame of his Fourth World concept: the picking and transplanting of global sounds, paired with ambience and unique instrumentation, to create a homogenous, curious whole.
‘Al Kongo Udu’, the album’s opening track, is an exemplar of this concept; it possesses a restrained, undulating groove accompanied by some gloriously reverbed percussion and faint electronic flourishes – an early highpoint of the LP.
Saying an album, especially an experimental one, can evoke different feelings upon each listen is fairly cliche, but too apt too ignore on this occasion. The mid-album rhythmic lull of Her ‘First Rain’, ‘Manga Scene’ and ‘Ndeya’ felt plodding and rudimentary some days, peaceful and explorative on others.
‘Pastoral Vassant’ picks up the pace again with a pared-back rapid-tempo train-on-tracks clack interspersed with some luscious synthesised notes and what sounds like barely processed, but beautiful, field recordings
The melange of Hassell’s sounds combine into a heady, oscillating sonic brew but for an album so full of ideas, for me it lacked any real lasting impact or emotional pull for the most part. The album’s closer, ‘Slipstream’, offers a bracing counterpoint to this though. Amid a gushing arpeggiated sequence, Hassell makes his trumpet heard in a brief, bright flurry of notes. It’s a warming, human moment, a universal touch not borrowed from elsewhere, but straight from the heart.
Pentimento is a worthy piece by Hassell. It is not so much a new entity, but a natural branch of the conceptual tree he has been growing and cultivating over the past 40 or so years. I found it hard to pin down at times, for better or worse, but for an artist of Hassell’s stature to remain so elusive for so long is something truly inspiring.