Though he’s one of Brian Eno’s most notable collaborators, American trumpeter Jon Hassell has long had a distinguished career in his own right. For the reissue of 1990′s City: Works of Fiction, All Saints has pulled out all the stops: The original hour-long release is complemented by a 1989 New York City concert recording, mixed live by Eno, as well as a third disc of demos, alternates and recent remixes. Hassell’s signature sound, electronically treated and at once woozy and startlingly immediate, is as present as ever, yet compared to much of Hassell’s work both before and since this album, City can feel like a bit of a curio.
Certainly Hassell’s famed self-described “Fourth World” aesthetic remains palpable, where musical styles from around the world are recombined to suggest cultures that never quite existed. Yet the album’s specific end-of-the-’80s sheen, incorporating, among other elements, a mix of well-polished funk and boxy drum machines, feels less exploratory than airless. Compared to something like the Bomb Squad’s contemporaneous rewiring of urban sounds, songs like “Voiceprint (Blind From the Facts)” could almost be soundtrack cuts from an arty action film of the era: stylish, yet nowhere near as viscerally thrilling.
But Hassell’s own distinct performances, pressing against the arrangements and sometimes bursting through them like alien signals, always suggests something else entirely. His is a quizzical intensity that never feels totally familiar or settled, and City: Works of Fiction revels in its liminal state between the acoustic and the electric. Sometimes, as on “Pagan,” it’s immediate, sketching out initial melodies as well as distressed shadings. His soloing, mixed with his rhythmic overdubs on “Ba-Ya D” is beautiful, while the song’s distant beats reach toward the idea of ‘fiction’ in the album title, somewhere familiar yet not quite real. On the wonderful “Tikal,” one of the shortest songs but one that almost begs to be extended, he shimmers around a percussion pattern with heavy echo, suggesting mystery with every note.
It’s telling that the live performance, featuring the players that eventually worked on the studio effort, feels much more involving than the studio takes from the get-go, with slow, snaky efforts setting an attractively murky feeling that Hassell explores on songs like “Alchemistry” and “Adedara Rising.” The final disc is more of a catchall, but the remixes from acts like patten and 808 State, reprising their role as remixers for “Voiceprint” at the time, help underscore Hassell’s own continuing impact.