On June 26th this year, after a period of ill health, Jon Hassell sadly passed away at the age of 84. His label informing Twitter that he a drifted away peacefully, was still full of ideas and, that he’d left several gifts to be shared over time. We heard the news with sadness but also triggered a great deal of personal memories.
There was the time that Jon Hassell really helped me…
Loss is something that we are dealing with all the time but perhaps during the current pandemic and all sorts of restrictions, losing those we care about, is even more brutal. Mourning people you know is heavy, but for those of us that have chosen to intertwine our lives in the work of artists and musicians, it’s another form of loss entirely.
Back in the early 90’s I was preparing myself to get into art school. Despite toiling an extra year or two to get the required academic qualifications, I was riding the crest of a creative wave. John Cage was already my hero and regular trips to record shops in Edinburgh were slowly revealing lifelong treasures.
One afternoon, I’d been delighted to find a vinyl copy of Terry Riley’s In C for the student friendly price of £1.99. The CD version, only feet away, was a wallet emptying £18.99! I’d also picked up Fourth World Vol 1 Possible Musics by my other obsession at the time – Brian Eno, a collaboration, with a new name to me – Jon Hassell.
I arrived home and almost instantly the phone rang – a mind warping call to say my gran had suddenly and unexpected died that afternoon. The next few days were like hitting a physical wall of pain. My gran was 69, with the mind and attitude of someone decades younger. She was my friend, and the first time in my life that I’d lost anyone important – and she was incredibly so.
Slowly, through the grief, I began to try and soothe and transport myself again in music and the two, still unplayed, recordings made sense to explore. Riley’s In C became part of life from that moment and its chiming rhythmic sonic carpet of joy has filled my brain countless times since… It took me quite a whilst to learn that Jon Hassell was actually part of Riley’s mind-blowing ensemble on that record.
Fourth World Vol 1 Possible Musics was different though, whilst it was Eno’s involvement that attracted me, it was the lysergic mercury of Hassell’s trumpet that made that album so rich. Chemistry sounded like a song stripped back to almost nothing, revealing sweltering patterns in its underwiring. Delta Rain Dream was the sound of humanity on an epic scale, a wave of emotion sweeping me into its mysterious vastness. The album seeped with this sense of exotic places and cultures, the cover image of Sudan from space. It was easy to image Rising Thermal 14° 16′ N; 32° 28′ E (the actual location of the sleeve photo) being little more than fragments of sound radiating from a sun-baked earth. All beamed through a pair of headphones, fizzing and rumbling away, in my hometown of Queensferry, in Scotland.
Earthquake Island, Dream Theory in Malaya (Forth World Volume Two) and eventually the sublime Vernal Equinox all followed. Despite all the settings he’s subsequently threaded his sound through, his trumpet and forms are always a unique and heady presence. Almost 30 years after discovering his music, its continually part of my world.
Whilst this article is a tiny personal tribute into how his music helped me, randomly in my time of need, it made me think of how important artists like Jon Hassell are to so many. Huge tracts of time spent in the company of people you never met or uttered a word to, a form of friendship that exists out with the physical realm, all just part of the universe.
Jon Hassell (March 22nd 1937 – June 26th 2021)