Jon Hassell obituary

American trumpeter and composer best known for his Fourth World music and his celebrated collaboration with Brian Eno

In his pursuit of something he came to call Fourth World music, the trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell, who has died aged 84, exerted an influence on his contemporaries that went far beyond the immediate popularity of his own work. To create “a contemporary coffee-coloured classical music”, Hassell drew together strands of music from around the world to make something that, without compromising its own identity, seemed to belong everywhere.

Although he performed at the first Womad festival in 1982, he never considered himself a part of the world music movement. That appearance came at the behest of the event’s organiser, Peter Gabriel, one of those artists on whose records Hassell would appear. Others who sought his contribution to their music included Brian Eno, Talking Heads, David Sylvian, Ry Cooder, kd lang, Jackson Browne and Tears for Fears.

To their work he added the distinctive tone of his trumpet, with which he took the cool approach pioneered in the 1950s by Miles Davis and Chet Baker one stage further. Through the careful use of electronic devices, including harmonisers and reverb units, he removed all traces of the instrument’s natural brassiness, favouring instead a gauzy sound and a frictionless attack along with a taste for microtonal intervals. As a result, his trumpet sounded as if it were being played by a Berber on a distant sand dune, or from a minaret in a mysteriously deserted city.

Jon Hassell playing in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2009

His most celebrated collaboration was with Eno, with whom in 1980 he recorded the album Fourth World Vol 1: Possible Musics, introducing a new audience to the juxtaposition of his trumpet over hypnotically drifting soundbeds incorporating rhythms and textures absorbed from Indian, Balinese, South American and North African music – a music designed to appeal, as he put it, both north and south of the waistline.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Hassell began playing on a cornet owned by his father. Attracted by big-band jazz, he gained his first performing experience in school bands. He took a master’s degree in modern classical composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and began studying for a PhD in musicology before obtaining a grant to study with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Rheinische Musikschule in Cologne. There he met two contemporaries and like-minded spirits, Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt, who would go on to found the German group Can.

A fellowship at what is now the Centre for the Arts at the State University of New York in Buffalo, founded and run by Lukas Foss, enabled him to experiment with an early Moog synthesiser and brought him into fruitful contact with Terry Riley, a Californian whose experiments with tape loops and repetition had led him to create a composition titled In C, which became a foundation stone of the new movement. Hassell was one of the 11 musicians who participated in the first recording of the piece for the Columbia label in New York in 1968.

He also became a member of the Theatre of Eternal Music, a group led by La Monte Young, another Californian, who had also studied with Stockhausen and was now deeply involved in the use of drones. Riley, Young and Hassell studied ragas in New York under Pandit Pran Nath, a master of the traditional Kiranic style of singing, whose slow-moving, very exact phrasing and microtonal intonation influenced them all.

Jon Hassell performing Sketches of the Mediterranean with Paolo Fresu in 2013

Hassell’s first album under his own name, Vernal Equinox, released on a small label in 1977, gave evidence of his interest in blending his raga-influenced trumpet lines with backgrounds making use of synthesised and found sounds, including birdsong and water. The album came to the attention of Eno, who had moved to New York in 1979 and went to see Hassell’s group at the Kitchen, an experimental performance space. Eno was producing a new album by Talking Heads and approached Hassell with a view to a collaboration. The two talked at length, and Hassell’s trumpet appeared on Houses in Motion, a track from Remain in Light.

Fourth World Vol 1: Possible Musics was an album of Hassell’s music, produced by Eno, who also played on the sessions, but the commercial value of the latter’s name led to the two being given equal billing. Although Hassell accepted the logic of the decision, he felt wounded when the album appeared in record-store bins under Eno’s name.

Two further albums, Dream Theory in Malaya and Aki/Darbari/Java, were released under Hassell’s name alone. However, there was a falling out when the trumpeter believed that Eno and David Byrne, the leader of Talking Heads, had unfairly excluded him from participation in the sessions for My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a highly influential 1981 album making use of the sort of panethnic collage techniques that Hassell had been exploring.

The relationship would be repaired by 1986, when Eno and his studio partner Daniel Lanois produced another Hassell album, Power Spot. The last of his 18 solo albums, Listening to Pictures and Seeing Through Sound, subtitled Pentimento Vols 1 and 2, were released in 2018 and 2020.

“He was a friend – and sometimes disputant! – for very many years,” Eno wrote in a message shortly after his death . “Re-listening to his records recently, I realised what a big step he took – and how he was still stepping right to the end. He was always on the edge, for better or worse: artistically, emotionally, financially, critically.”

The non-traditional sound of his trumpet influenced a generation of the instrument’s exponents, notably Nils Petter Molvaer and Arve Henriksen in Norway. It also became a colour to be used by the composers of film scores, including Gabriel (on Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ) and Cooder (Walter Hill’s Trespass, Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence and Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors). Hassell was also heard on Cooder’s albums Chávez Ravine, My Name Is Buddy and I, Flathead.

Hassell is survived by the family with whom he spent his last three decades, living in Los Angeles: his companion, De Fracia Evans, and her daughters, Uti and Taska.

Jon Hassell, trumpeter and composer, born 22 March 1937; died 26 June 2021


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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