Dudley Metropolitan Library was the start of so many strange musical trips. You could if memory serves take out a maximum of 4 records at 50p each. Add in a 5 pack of TDK C90s and a boy could be happy for quite a while. Your pocket money and Saturday job wages could stretch to quite a few albums. You could also afford take a risk on a few things.
Being into Roxy Music, David Bowie and Japan, I was willing take a punt on anything with a vague connection. One of the albums I borrowed has just been reissued, prompting me to reflect on the main protagonists.
It was “Fourth World, Volume 1: Possible Musics” by Jon Hassell. It had that Eno-esque sleeve & title.
It featured typically gnomic titles such as “Charm (Over Burundi Cloud”). But the music was otherworldly. I was already a Miles Davis fan courtesy of my CD offer from Beatties in Wolverhampton. This album offered up the electronic treatment of the Hassell’s trumpet a la Miles in the Seventies over Eno’s textures. There was a deep bass thrum to many of the tracks and they were quite beautiful. You can hear Hassell’s breath control. The album is rich in texture. It’s almost physical and natural. I wasn’t to know at that point quite how often Jon Hassell would crop up in my musical interests.
The photo on the sleeve is a satellite image of an area south of Khartoum in Sudan that matches one of the titles of the tracks. This is a track called “Chemistry” which is reflective of the album.
Eno arrived in New York in 1978 and almost immediately picked up on Hassell’s 1977 album “Vernal Equinox.” Hassell was born in Memphis in 1937. He headed first to the Eastman School of Music in New York and then to Cologne. Influenced by Stockhausen and the emerging new classical European scene, he returned to New York. He performed on the first recording of Terry Riley’s “In C” before heading to Buffalo where he was introduced to the music of the Indian vocalist, Pandit Pran Nath. He headed to India with his wife and Riley. This very unMemphis like background all contributed to the mix of influences and one can definitely see how Hassell and Eno would potentially get on like a house on fire.
Eno saw Hassell perform at the Kitchen in New York in 1980. Eno had just started working on his third album with Talking Heads, “Remain In Light.” They started socialising and recording together. Hassell recognised Eno’s contributions to the recordings, hence the billing on the album cover of “Jon Hassell/Brian Eno.” (The re-release on Glitterbeat comes with extensive sleeve notes from Eno and an interview of Jon Hassell by the author Pat Thomas in which Thomas recognises that he probably wouldn’t have picked up the LP without Eno’s name piquing his curiosity – the same goes for me. In the interview, Hassell comments that this dual billing was a particularly good commercial decision on his part).
Hassell comments that the notion of “Fourth World Music” was essentially as follows in those Cold War days:
- First World – the European and American tradition
- Second World – the Soviet Union
- Third World – anything outside of these two
- Fourth World – a place that was essentially part of the Third World where spirituality and tradition still existed
Whether Hassell and Eno did create a new World Music is open to debate but it does come from a different place to other music of that time – it isn’t ambient as per Eno’s recent recordings nor is jazz or the newly emerging from Asia or Africa.
Hassell also performed on “Remain In Light.” This is still my favourite Talking Heads album, in fact one of favourite albums full stop. You can hear Hassell’s work on “Houses In Motion.” His part is primarily in over the latter part of each of the verses, with a solo that is instantly identifiable in tone from the Eno collaboration.
Eno went to work in Los Angeles with David Byrne on “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts” (another favourite of mine). Hassell was to join them but he was sent a cassette of a track with vocals by Oum Kalsoum, an Egyptian singer and some Talking Heads-ish backing. Hassell was disappointed as he was expecting to compose on the project and bowed out.
My next connection with Hassell came three years later. David Sylvian had disbanded Japan and was striking out on his own. He was recording his debut solo album and Hassell joined him to write and play on the title track “Brilliant Trees” and the side two opener “Weathered Wall”. Both had the percussive element found on the Eno collaboration and the breathy electronically treated trumpet. The album was beautiful – such a brave and radical step for Sylvian, so soon after the long awaited commercial success of the latter part of Japan’s career.
This is a lovely black and white film that accompanies the title track.
They worked again together on the instrumental follow up “Alchemy: An Index Of Possibilities.” Myself and my friend Blair chortled at the pretentiousness of the titles at the time (even at 18 we could spot a bit of pseud) but listening again, the music is really quite graceful.
I lost track of Hassell a little after that. He worked with Peter Gabriel on his first WOMAD Festival. He was still working although at a more gentle rate of knots.
I picked up his 2009 album “Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street” on a recommendation. By now, Hassell was recording on ECM, the European jazz and classical label where he was at home with his peers and followers such as Nils Petter Molvaer and Arve Henriksen. The album is gorgeous and is true to the ECM sound but with obvious Hassell tones.
And a few weeks ago I was at a record fair and came across a Warp reissue of Hassell’s 1990 LP “City: Works Of Fiction”. This was something else entirely. Recorded in 1989 in New York, it features hip hop rhythms and samples Public Enemy. The bonus material includes a remix by 808 State. It is like nothing else by Hassell that I’ve heard but sounds exactly like him. It is of a piece with Miles’s later albums such as “Tutu” and “Amandla”. I will delve deeper into it as the months go by. I’ve found footage of a whole concert which was performed in a festival curated by Eno, back in New York. He and Hassell were reconciled after their fall out over the trumpeter’s abortive role in “Bush of Ghosts” Project.
Hassell’s work rate has slowed (he’s 78 at the time of writing). What is out there is worthy of exploration, especially if his collaborators are your cup of tea.
There isn’t any footage that I could find of Hassell playing live with Eno, Byrne or Sylvian. In the absence therefore, here’s some footage of Hassell playing at the Lausanne Jazz Festival in 2009. The track is the Title track of the ECM album and is pretty representative of the record.