Jon Hassell obituary | Music


In his quest for what he called Fourth World music, trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell, who died at the age of 84, exerted an influence on his contemporaries far beyond the immediate popularity of his own. artwork. To create “contemporary coffee-colored classical music,” Hassell brought together pieces of music from around the world to create something that, without compromising its own identity, seemed to belong to everywhere.

Although he performed at the first Womad festival in 1982, he never saw himself as part of the world music movement. This appearance came at the behest of the event’s organizer, Peter Gabriel, one of those artists on whose records Hassell would appear. Other people who have requested his contribution to their music include 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 launched in the 1950s by Miles Davis and Chet Baker a step further. Through the careful use of electronic devices, including harmonizers and reverb units, he removed all traces of the instrument’s natural copper, instead favoring a wispy sound and frictionless attack as well as a taste for microtonal intervals. As a result, his trumpet sounded as if it was being played by a Berber on a distant sand dune, or from a minaret in a mysteriously deserted town.

Jon Hassell playing in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2009

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

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Hassell began playing on a cornet belonging to his father. Attracted by big band jazz, he acquired his first stage experience in school orchestras. He obtained a master’s degree in modern classical composition from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and began to study for a doctorate in musicology before obtaining a scholarship to study with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Rheinische Musikschule in Cologne. There he met two contemporaries and like-minded minds, Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt, who later founded the German group Can.

A scholarship to what is now the Center for the Arts at State University of New York at Buffalo, founded and directed by Lukas Foss, allowed him to experiment with one of the first Moog synthesizers and put it in fruitful contact with Terry Riley, a Californian whose experiments with tape loops and rehearsal led him to create a composition called In C, which became a cornerstone of the new movement. Hassell was one of 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 Theater 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 City under the direction of Pandit Pran Nath, a master of traditional Kiranic singing, whose slow, very precise phrasing and microtonal intonation influenced them all.

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

Hassell’s debut album under his own name, Vernal Equinox, released on a small label in 1977, demonstrated his interest in mixing his raga-influenced trumpet lines with backgrounds using synthesized and found sounds, especially the song of birds and water. The album caught the attention of Eno, who had moved to New York City in 1979 and went to see Hassell’s band at the Kitchen, an experimental performance space. Eno was producing a new Talking Heads album and approached Hassell for a collaboration. The two spoke 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 performed on the sessions, but the commercial value of the latter’s name has led to the two being billed equally. Although Hassell accepted the logic of the decision, he felt hurt when the album hit record stores under the name Eno.

Two other albums, Dream Theory in Malaya and Aki / Darbari / Java, were released under the single name of Hassell. However, there was a falling out when the trumpeter believed that Eno and David Byrne, the frontman of Talking Heads, had unfairly excluded him from participating in the sessions of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a very influential album by 1981 using the sort of pan-ethnic collage techniques that Hassell had explored.

The relationship would be mended in 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, was released in 2018 and 2020.

“He was a friend – and sometimes a dissenter! – for many, many years, ”Eno wrote in a post shortly after his death. “Listening to his records recently, I realized how far he had taken a big step – and how he was still going through with it. He was always on the cutting edge, for better or for worse: artistically, emotionally, financially, critically.

The non-traditional sound of his trumpet influenced a generation of representatives of the instrument, including Nils Petter Molvaer and Arve Henriksen in Norway. It has also become a color used by film music composers, including Gabriel (on The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese) and Cooder (Trespass by Walter Hill, The End of Violence by Wim Wenders and Primary Colors by Mike Nichols) . Hassell has also been heard on Cooder Chávez Ravine, My Name Is Buddy and I, Flathead albums.

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

Jon Hassell, trumpeter and composer, born March 22, 1937; passed away on June 26, 2021


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