How ashamed I always feel when I encounter, for the first time, an artist who has been making his mark for decades just out of the reach of my senses. I knew nothing of trumpeter and keyboardist Jon Hassell before hearing about this three-disc, expanded reissue of his widely lauded 1991 album, and now I have an irrepressible curiosity about his work, much as how reading a single Philip K. Dick novel triggered in me a thirst for everything else he'd done.
City sits somewhere between Herbie Hancock's electronic pop-jazz of the 1980s and the more omnivorous, open-ended experimentalism of artists like David Byrne or Brian Eno. It veers between angular, jittery funk ("Voiceprint (Blind from the Facts)"; "Pagan"; "Warriors") and moody driftwork ("Tikal", "Neon Light (Rain)", "Ba-Ya D"). The main instruments are Hassell's horn, dry and plaintive in the manner of Miles Davis in his later, more openly adventurous years, and an array of percussion — electronic and otherwise — keyboards, and snippets of vocal and environmental sounds. "Voiceprint" comes replete with samples of Flava Flav, although that's about the only concession on the record to whatever else was happening culturally at the time the record was waxed.
The rest of the City sound is a mix of non-Western flavors — African drumming, vaguely Asian chord progressions — that bring to mind things like "One Minute Warning" from Eno's own "Passengers" (also of the soundtrack for the first Ghost in the Shell feature film). With a title like that in tow, it's meant to evoke a sense of place, in the same way Miles Davis's "On the Corner" evoked the squirming immediacy of the urban grid.
The second and third discs of this reissue — one remixes, one a live set with none other than Eno himself — are almost entirely in an ambient vein, especially on the seventeen-minute "Nightsky" that closes out the live disc. When I originally ripped the CDs to my music library, I didn't realize I had done so out of order, and so I ended up with original album, remix/bonus tracks, and live tracks. The last two discs had gotten swapped, but the result was a far more interesting sequencing than the default, one where the squirming multiethnic groove of the album progressively (pun intended) gave way over time to improvised ambient driftwork. But Hassell and his crew keep not only many of the same instruments but also the same chord progressions and rhythmic ideas, and so all three discs end up becoming a whole.