When trumpeter/composer Jon Hassell set out to record his 1990 album City: Works of Fiction, he was finally ready to allow himself to let his influences show a little bit.
As he told writer Jason Gross in a 1997 interview that appeared on Perfect Sound Forever, “After years of trying to make the case for improvisational music which is ‘not-jazz’...I started to feel free enough to let more obvious elements of my respect for Miles [Davis] creep in from time to time.” And as most musicians were in the late ‘80s, Hassell was becoming more inspired by what he saw as the futuristic sounds of hip hop, something even Davis was copping to towards the end of his long career.
Of course, nothing on City comes across quite as cleanly as its creator expressed. The album, which is being re-released in an expanded form this week via Roger Eno’s All Saints label, some very clear connections between the heavily processed trumpet sound that Hassell plays with throughout and the similar melted and smeared approach that Davis on Tutu and Aura. As well, the hints of hip hop come mostly via a straight-up sample of Flavor Flav that cuts through the clatter of “Voiceprint (Blind From The Facts)” and the sinister throb of “In The City of Red Dust.”
The tracks on the original album otherwise feel like the perfect evolution of his self-appointed “Fourth World” sound, which attempted to meld together musical disciplines from around the world into one glorious whole. Through his trumpet, he attempts to replicate the hypnotic push-and-pull of an African vocal ensemble as backed by a continuous rattling beat on “Mombasa.” A similar rhythm comes alive in closing track “Out of Adedara” but this time punctuated by wah-wah heavy guitar notes and synthesized bleats that feel like insect buzzes or animal calls from miles away.
This reissue is packaged with the welcome addition of a contemporaneous live recording of Hassell and the band he recorded City with (the last disc of the three disc set is a collection of album outtakes and remixes). The group performed in the midst of an installation Brian Eno had set up in the World Financial Center Winter Garden that used audio and video of a pygmy tribe from Cameroon. As mixed by Eno, Hassell’s music is accompanied and occasionally pushed aside by the sounds of the natural world. The band had to continually react and adapt to the changing images and noises around it.
It’s an absolute marvel of conception and execution, and actually bests the larger concepts that Hassell was exploring on City, this future “Fourth World” where the dystopian landscapes of Blade Runner, the Amazon rainforest and the Sahara all shared the same widescreen vista. The “techno/primitive” paradigm, as he referred to it. Considering how much the current technologies and attitudes are infiltrating developing nations around the globe, City’s reissue is long overdue. This three-disc set could provide an alternate soundtrack to a film like Naqoyqatsi or Elysium, which struggles with similar issues of how the modern world and the developing world are trying to achieve a kind of détente. And as the notes for the album state, Hassell actually comes close to poking “air holes in the enclosing bubble of the inevitable banalization and orthodoxy of the ‘World Music’ idea.” It’s a shame few people dared to follow suit.