Jon Hassell: A Retrospective of Recorded Works

A description on the front page of Jon Hassell’s website describes him as a “music visionary, continuing his lifelong exploration of the possibilities of recombination and musical gene-splicing.” That is as precise as any description of the trumpet player and musical pioneer who passed away last month at the age of 84.

Jon Hassell Playlist: 22 tracks from across his entire career, including albums and tracks referenced in this article.

by Marshall Bowden

A description on the front page of Jon Hassell’s website describes him as a “music visionary, continuing his lifelong exploration of the possibilities of recombination and musical gene-splicing.” That is as precise as any description of the trumpet player and musical pioneer who passed away last month at the age of 84.  His work has resonated heavily with many musicians on the experimental side of the electronic music galaxy as well as with enthusiasts of blending musical cultures, modern jazz listeners, and hip hop producers. His musical range is wide and spans several decades, with the result that many of his listeners, however ardent, may be familiar with only one or two phases of his career.

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For many listeners Jon Hassell will have appeared on their radars as a result of his work with Brian Eno on Possible Musics V.1: Fourth World. The record was Hassell’s recording, with Eno credited on the front cover as a strategy to gain new listeners and interest:

“If I had been less naive I could have foreseen that—with “Eno is God” grafitti sprouting all over the NYC subways that summer—my strategy to offer him co-billing on the LP jacket for sales reasons would lead to years of trying to explain how my sound was already in place before Eno. It’s not that some form of co-billing wasn’t deserved, it’s just that my obscure “downtown” reputation guaranteed me a position in the shadow of his high-pop profile and the mood of pop critics of the time was to assume that he was the creator of all.”

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Jon Hassell’s period in the shadow of Eno’s high-pop profile produced a number of records released through the 80s on which the trumpeter applied a variety of frameworks and combinations of music made to sound at once folkloric and modern. Dream Theory In Malaya (subtitled Fourth World, V.2) was recorded in Bob and Daniel Lanois’ studio in Hamilton, near Toronto. With Eno again the mix, Hassell uses his trumpet to create rhythmic chordal figures that are respliced into an ostinata. The result is both familiar and unsettling, as can be heard on the opening track “Choir Moire” and the jittery yet strangely lyrical “Datu Bintung at Jelong.” 
The Fourth World sounds that Hassell was promoting were driven by a marriage of the technical and the tribal and his work was influential on the Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration My Life In the Bush of Ghosts. But Hassell’s Fourth World, as heard on his albums Vernal Equinox and Earthquake Island as well as the Eno Possible Musics records, comes with a heavy erotic charge in the undulating rhythms and the phaser trumpet effects, something that is missing from the Eno/Byrne faux tribal record. 

Aka/Darbari/Java: Magic Realism finds Hassell once again working with Daniel Lanois, this time without any appearance by Eno. Hassell uses a CMI Fairlight, the first digital sampler to help compose with ‘little sound objects.’ And really, by this time, Hassell has moved deeply into the territory ceded by Miles Davis in the mid-70s: the electronic manipulation of the sound of the trumpet as well as a change in the background sound as well. Turntablism and hip hop were asserting themselves as well, and Hassell looked toward incorporating the cut and paste aesthetic that was developing around these new sounds with the ambient and world music ideas he had been working with for nearly a decade. In terms of influence, Hassell picked up from Miles and continued to explore the ways that the trumpet could be the conduit for sound that mimicked the human voices of Indian raga singers and Arab music, which makes extensive use of microtones. After his return from semi-retirement in 1981, Miles was moving in the direction of funk/pop/hip hop, and so Hassell’s combination of world musics, ambient backgrounds, and electronic manipulation of sound became the influential voice for trumpet players like Erik Truffaz.

Mati Klarwein

Hassell makes no bones about the fact that he is working to create new sonic worlds here–the cover art for these albums is colorful and elaborate, evoking an exotic locale that could be anywhere on the planet, or perhaps even beneath or above it. Earthquake Island, Dream Theory In Malaya, and Aka/Darbari/Java all feature cover art by Mati Klarwein, who is well known for his work that appeared on the cover of Bitches Brew as well as Santana’s Abraxas. The cover of 1987’s The Surgeon of the Nightsky Restores Dead Things By The Power of Sound is a painting entitled “The Swamp” by Melissa Miller. The record seamlessly combines the electronic patterns and foreground trumpet with natural sounds surfacing now and again in the background. 

Power Spot, Hassell’s 1986 ECM recording is a consolidation of his work to that point, and it might be one of the most accessible introductions to his music. He concluded the decade by recording Flash of the Spirit with the music and dance group Farafina from Burkina Faso. It also marks the end of Hassell’s association with Eno and Lanois as producers and collaborators.

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Hassell’s 1990 recording City: Works of Fiction breathed fresh life into his World idea, with the percussion and sampled percussion of Jeff Rona and Adam Rudolph providing a more open structure for Hassell’s compositions and his effects-heavy trumpet still distinctly recognizable as his. In 2020 he compiled and released an expanded edition of the landmark album that includes a live performance of the group from Brian Eno’s live mix from an installation at the Wintergarden and a third disc of studio outtakes, demos, and reinterpretations. “Voiceprint (Blind From the Facts),” the album’s opening track, doesn’t sound all that far away from On the Corner, and there is a temptation to think that this is where Miles might have ended up, but it’s more important to note that it paves the way for Erik Truffaz and Nils Petter Molvaer.

What happened? The end of the eighties and top of the 90s were the time when hip hop exploded, proving itself much more than a fad. For Hassell, as for many others, Public Enemy was the breakthrough, not  just in terms of attitude and subject matter, but in terms of sound, of the way they pieced together their samples. It was at once modern and unmistakably urban, and it definitely influenced the sound of City. 

In 1994 Hassell has assiilated all of this and reords what seems like a bid for commerciality in some ways, but it’s outside in many ways. Still, you could probably get some folks who don’t find Hassell’s earlier work all that compelling to listen to Dressing For Pleasure, a collaboration with Pete Scaturro and featuring a long list of guest contributors, including Kenny Garrett, Flea, Trevor Dunn, Greg Kurstin, and others. 

The presence of danceable beats and the digital editing characteristic of EDM and hip hop should not be taken at face value as a way of ‘popularizing’ the Fourth World but rather as a means of incorporating the physical, the sexual, what Weterners perceive as ‘the real world.’  In his perceptive book Ocean of Sound, David Toop quotes from an essay by Pat Califia that Hassell sent him:

“Modern primitives live, for the most part, in urban enclaves in the age of the machine. We have to find a way to synthesise the rhythms of nature with our electronic lives. A fuzzy-headed, sentimental longing for a bucolic Utopia will not save us from toxic waste or nuclear weapons. We need a world where we can have both computers and campfires.”(Toop, David. Ocean of Sound (Serpent’s Tail Classics) . Profile. Kindle Edition.)

In 1999, on the eve of the new millennia, Hassell released the album Fascinoma, on which his trumpet is often stripped of effects and distortions so that it sounds, no matter its background, like a trumpet. He records music written by others for the first time–a solo rendition of “Nature Boy” and of the exotic work of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol.  Playing with a group that includes guitarist Roy Cooder (who also produces), pianist Jackie Terrason, and exotic Indian and Asian percussion and flute played by musicians who are as highly trained as any Western performers with whom we might be familiar. 

It must also be noted that even before his work with Cooder, but especially afterward Hassell recorded guest spots and other appearances on recordings and mixes of work by artists as varied as Mandalay, David Toop, kd lang, Rick Cox, and others. That topic is one that I’ll reserve for a future article.

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In 2005 Hassell released the album Maarifa Street, inspired by Arabic music and the poetry of Rumi. Hassell felt that the music had a certain aesthetic in common with his 1983 record Aka-Darbari-Java / Magic Realism, and so Maarifa Street was subtitled Magic Realism V. 2. Indeed, Hassell does look back towards the music he was making in the 80s, during the Eno period, with the significant exception that his trumpet, while muted, is largely untreated in the heavy ways that he and Eno were doing back then. It’s also safe to say that this music wouldn’t have come about with the City and Dressing For Pleasure recordings as it incorporates some elements of those records. 

In the last two decades of Jon Hassell’s career he devotes more time and energy than ever to remixing and revisiting his previous work, or elements thereof. His 2009 recording, Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In the Street (a return to the ECM label) is composed of curated and constructed recordings of Hassell’s touring band, Maarifa Street. It’s pretty subtle music, almost seamless in the way that the musicians interact with the technology and with each other. None of this is really a serious shift from the methods Hassell was investigating all along, but somehow the phase of Hassell’s career that took place after 2002 sounds a little more open, less cluttered with sounds. 

By now it should be apparent that Hassell was so important to a variety of modern musicians because he not only played and created music, he spent a large amount of time thinking about music as well as the larger playing field of the arts and culture. Influenced by the exotification of other cultures in the musical work of Les Baxter as a youngster, Jon Hassell is adept at finding connections between musical cultures, but he’s appropriating his own work at least as much as that of any other. Many of his later works are based on music previously performed or recorded that is manipulated in the digital recording studio to create a new recording. It’s not unlike Miles Davis keeping the tape rolling throughout a session and then having Teo Macero edit that tape into a track that was something completely new and completely different than the way the musicians had played it in the studio.

John Payne writes about this as one implication of Hassell’s work:  “Hassell never has to record one new note for the rest of his life, such is the depth and infinitely variable substance of his recorded work.”

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Indeed, after nine years, Hassell released his first new recording since Last Night The Moon. Entitled Listening To Pictures, it further identified itself as Pentimento V.1, a reference to the art world. Pentimento is defined as the reappearance in a painting of earlier images, forms, or strokes that have been changed and painted over. The works are furthermore dedicated to Mati Klarweins, whose work feature prominently on many of Hassell’s early recordings. Klarwewins’ artwork was both culturally all-embracing and deeply sensual, both of which also apply to Jon Hassell’s music. In 2020 he released Pentimento V.2, entitled Seeing Through Sound. 

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This final chapter in Jon Hassell’s recording career opened up a new palette and presented a different perspective on his music.For an artist as focused and committed to his vision as Hassell is, the sustaining of such a lengthy career is amazing. Most of us have barely scratched the surface of his lifelong work, and his legacy is assured now that musicians originally influenced by him, like Erik Truffaz and Nils Petter Molvaer, are spawning their own disciples.

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