Jon Hassell, visionary trumpeter and composer who worked with Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and Ry Cooder – obituary

·4-min read
Jon Hassell in 2003 - Mephisto/DALLE
Jon Hassell in 2003 - Mephisto/DALLE

Jon Hassell, who has died aged 84, was an American trumpeter and composer who explored new territories in contemporary music; he studied under the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen before immersing himself in Indian classical music, and his vision of a music that fused elements of Eastern and Western forms led to him winning a loyal cult following and the attention of his peers.

From 1980 onwards Hassell was often in demand to contribute to recordings by the likes of Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, David Sylvain, kd lang and Ry Cooder. While Hassell continued to mine his own esoteric musical path – one he defined as “Fourth World” – his popularity as a collaborator found him appearing on huge-selling 1980s albums by Talking Heads and Tears For Fears, alongside several film soundtracks.

Hassell played on Remain in Light after meeting the album's producer Brian Eno
Hassell played on Remain in Light after meeting the album's producer Brian Eno

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 22 1937, Hassell was first attracted to music by his cornet-playing father. He learnt to play trumpet in school and participated in marching bands while becoming a jazz enthusiast – he loved big-band swing, and during the 1950s, enjoyed the “cool” trumpet playing of Chet Baker and Miles Davis.

Yet the young Hassell had no interest in trying to succeed as another jazz trumpeter. Instead he attended Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where he studied modern classical composition, specialising in serial music. He planned to undertake a PhD in ethnomusicology, but a grant to study under Stockhausen in Germany saw him based in Cologne for two years.

Returning to the US in 1967, Hassell encountered the composer Terry Riley and would go on to play on his celebrated piece In C, which is often cited as the first “minimalist” composition.

Hassell's 'Fourth World' concept was, he said, 'a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques'
Hassell's 'Fourth World' concept was, he said, 'a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques'

Based in Buffalo, New York, to pursue his PhD, Hassell immersed himself in the world of experimental composers, performing with another minimalist pioneer, La Monte Young, while developing his own musical philosophy from studying Pandit Pran Nath, an Indian raga singer whose music was sited as an influence on the likes of Riley and Young.

In 1977 Hassell released his debut solo album, Vernal Equinox, to little fanfare. Yet those who did hear it paid attention, and in 1979 Brian Eno, then based in New York, attended a Hassell concert. Finding that they shared much common ground, he invited Hassell to play on the Talking Heads sessions he was producing, which would culminate in the band’s acclaimed Remain In Light album.

Hassell's final album, released in 2020
Hassell's final album, released in 2020

Eno then produced Hassell’s next album, Fourth World Vol 1: Possible Musics. The album is credited to both Hassell and Eno, the latter’s commercial muscle and better-known name helping Hassell find a wider public. “Fourth World” was a term Hassell employed to describe his musical aesthetic – “a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques”, as he told an interviewer.

The album gained excellent reviews and did introduce Hassell to a wider audience. From then on he commanded both a loyal (if niche) following, as well as being in demand as a sideman and sometimes composer for many celebrated rock and pop musicians.

Hassell loved the attention his new status gave him and his outspoken nature made him a natural for the music press: he publicly castigated Eno for teaming up with Talking Heads’ leader David Byrne to release the 1981 album My Life in the Bush Of Ghosts – which, Hassell felt, lent too heavily on his ideas. Eno and Hassell later reconciled and work together again.

The likes of Ry Cooder and Peter Gabriel employed Hassell’s muted, electronically treated trumpet to distinctive effect on film soundtracks they were producing. Cooder proved to be Hassell’s most loyal employer, using him on everything from his solo albums to his recordings with members of the Buena Vista Social Club.

When not playing lucrative recording sessions for the stars, Hassell released well-received solo albums, his eerie, dissonant soundscapes making uneasy listening. A broken leg meant that Hassell was in hospital for several months in 2020 – in isolation due to coronavirus – but he still managed to release his Seeing Through Sound album in July.

Jon Hassell is survived by his partner, De Fracia Evans.

Jon Hassell, born March 22 1937, died June 26 2021

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