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Trumpeter and Composer Jon Hassell Dies at 84

Rooted in big-band jazz, he evolved into an explorer of the “Fourth World”

Jon Hassell
Jon Hassell

Jon Hassell, a trumpeter and composer who developed a hybrid he dubbed “Fourth World” music, died on June 26. A statement from the musician’s family cited non-specific natural causes and did not mention the place where Hassell died. A GoFundMe page for Hassell had been established in 2020 to help him finance his fight against health complications. He was 84.

Throughout his five-decade career, Hassell valued eclecticism and experimentalism. His first prominent release—and one of his most celebrated—was the 1980 album Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics, a collaboration with the English artist and producer Brian Eno. Described as “ambient esoteric kitsch” by the critic Robert Christgau, and as “a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques” by Hassell himself, the recording was dominated by Hassell’s trumpet work, set amid tape loops, layers of percussion, electronics, and effects.

In 1980, Hassell appeared on Talking Heads’ celebrated album Remain in Light, and he later served as a sideman or collaborator with a wide array of artists including Peter Gabriel, David Sylvian, Ry Cooder (on both solo albums and soundtracks), Jackson Browne, k.d. lang, Tears for Fears, Ani DiFranco, Ibrahim Ferrer, and the producer Hal Willner.

Hassell’s own albums as leader or co-leader, 18 in all, began with 1977’s Vernal Equinox, which ushered in the ideas that he would soon label Fourth World. His definition of the term remained fluid, but at its core it described a style that embraced modern technology but set it within a cross-cultural framework unbound to specific musical eras.

More cryptically, Hassell once wrote of his concept, “Fourth World is an entire week of Saturdays. It’s about heart and head as the same thing. It’s about being transported to some place which is made up of both real and virtual geography.”

Jon Hassell was born March 22, 1937, in Memphis, Tenn., where he developed an early love for big-band jazz. Taking up the cornet and then trumpet, he later earned a master’s degree in modern classical composition from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. Schooled in both the jazz trumpet stylings of Miles Davis and Chet Baker, as well as the groundbreaking early electronic music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hassell was influenced, during the 1960s and ’70s, by such avant-gardists as Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, becoming a member of the latter’s Theatre of Eternal Music. The developing synthesizer technology of the day, particularly the Moog, also came into Hassell’s orbit.
 
Early on, Hassell began investigating the application of electronic devices to his trumpet playing, often altering the natural sound of the instrument to such a degree that it ceased to resemble a horn powered by the breath of a human. As he continued to explore, Hassell became enamored of Indian classical music, striving to interpret ragas on trumpet. He later introduced elements of African, Pacific Island, South American, and Asian music to his blend.

By the 1980s, as he continued to release his own music and to collaborate prolifically, Hassell explored various strains simultaneously, furthering his own Fourth World creations while adding trumpet parts to the recordings of forward-looking pop artists. He performed at the first WOMAD festival, the brainchild of Gabriel, in 1982. A second album produced by Eno—this time co-produced with Daniel Lanois—arrived in 1986; titled Power Spot, it was one of two Hassell albums to be released by the ECM label (the other being 2009’s Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street). Seeing Through Sound, Hassell’s final studio album, was released in 2020.

Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin on social media

Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.