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Jon Hassell - An Obituary

Jon Hassell – Trumpeter, composer


Born March 22, 1937; died June 26, 2021   


Jon Hassell, who has died aged 84, was a trumpeter whose use of electronic textures alongside his primary instrument opened up sonic possibilities that expanded his musical palette alongside his notion of Fourth World music. This saw Hassell take music beyond American and European traditions to something more exploratory, as he absorbed rhythms and beats from infinitely less well-known traditions, and married them to more contemporary fare. 


The result could be heard on albums such as his solo debut, Vernal Equinox (1978), and collaborations with Brian Eno on Fourth World, Vol1: Possible Musics (1980), and its follow up, Dream Theory in Malaya: Fourth World Volume Two (1981). The hypnotic future-primitive fusion Hassell described as “coffee-coloured classical music of the future” seemed to emanate from some imaginary global village.


Hassell’s musical excursions had developed out of his studies with Karlheinz Stockhausen alongside future members of Can, Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt. His early collaborations with Terry Riley and LaMonte Young saw him play with Young’s drone based Theatre of Eternal Music as he developed an interest in Indian raga. His ethnodelic explorations subsequently applied the cool of Miles Davis and Chet Baker to a spacier sound that saw Hassell collaborate on record with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and David Sylvian. 


The voguish forms of loft-friendly funk and what came to be known as World Music that Hassell arguably influenced were some way from his original intentions. He took particular umbrage with Eno and Talking Heads vocalist David Byrne’s album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). Hassell was originally meant to contribute to the record after playing on Houses in Motion, a track on Talking Heads’ Eno produced album, Remain in Light (1980). Despite this, Hassell retained a purism about his notion of Fourth World music, to the extent of describing Byrne and Eno’s pick-and-mix collage-based use of samples from African and Middle Eastern countries on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts as “touristic” and “too poppy”. 


Hassell nevertheless went on to collaborate with Eno again on Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land (1982) album, while Eno played bass on two tracks on Hassell’s Daniel Lanois produced record, Power Spot (1986). In 2007, Eno wrote an essay, The Debt I Owe to Jon Hassell, while in 2018 Hassell told Billboard magazine that the two had reconnected after he wrote Eno a fifty-page letter. 


By this time, Hassell’s influence had reverberated amongst a new generation of musical explorers, who mixed sounds from around the world with electronics and treated instruments. Artists as diverse as Auntie Flo, 808 State, Matmos and Momus all paid tribute to Hassell’s boundless musical universe.


Jon M. Hassell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, where he grew up listening to blues and soul on local AM radio stations. His father played cornet with the Georgia Tech marching band, with the cornet becoming Hassel’s first instrument before he moved to trumpet.    


He played in big bands, and studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he explored modern classical composition. To avoid being drafted, he joined the army band in Washington, and made tape collages that encouraged him to study under Stockhausen for two years at the Cologne Course for New Music. It was here he met Czukay and Schmidt, with whom he experimented with LSD as well as music.


Back in New York, Hassell won a scholarship at the Centre for creative and Performing Arts at the State University, and met synthesiser pioneer Robert Moog. He also met Riley, and ended up playing on the recorded version of Riley’s seminal composition, In C (1968). With Riley and Young, Hassell developed a more holistic approach, and he studied under Indian classical singer Pandit Pran Nath. The experience had a huge influence on all three composers.

When Eno heard Vernal Equinox he recognised a fellow traveller, and saw Hassell play live prior to their collaborations. Beyond his own work, Hassell appeared on 

David Sylvian’s debut album, Brilliant Trees (1984) as co-composer, and worked with Gabriel on the soundtracks for Birdy (1985) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1989).


Hassell collaborated several times with guitarist Ry Cooder, on soundtracks for Trespass (1993), The End of Violence (1997) and Primary Colours (1998). The pair worked with Indian musicians Ronu Majumdar, on bansuri, a wooden flute, and tabla player Abhijit Banerjee on Hollow Bamboo (2000). Hassell later appeared on Cooder’s records, Chavez Ravine (2005), My Name is Buddy (2007), and I, Flathead (2008).


Hassell’s albums as leader included Dressing for Pleasure (1994), and Maarifa Street: Magic Realism Volume Two (2005). The group was named after a street in Iran, and means knowledge or wisdom. For ECM Records, Hassell released Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street (2009).


Latterly, Hassell was given his own Ndeya imprint through Warp Records. The label released Listening to Pictures (2018), and Seeing Through Sound (2020). Both drew from Hassell’s theory of ‘pentimento’, a term borrowed from painting that refers to images and forms that have been painted over in a completed work. The term seemed to sum up Hassell’s own ever-fluid approach, as he moved constantly forward with an ever-evolving body of work.


He is survived by his companion, De Fracia Evans, and her daughters, Uti and Taska.

The Herald, July 14th 2021





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