Jazz CD Reviews

Curtis Hasselbring – Number Stations – Cuneiform RUNE

Espionage-themed music which sounds like nothing spy-related you’ve ever heard.

Published on June 16, 2013

Curtis Hasselbring – Number Stations – Cuneiform RUNE 356, 50:16 [1/29/13] ****:

(Chris Hasselbring – trombone, guitar; Trevor Dunn – acoustic and electric bass; Mary Halvorson – guitar; Matt Moran – vibraphone; Ches Smith – drums, marimba; Chris Speed – tenor saxophone, clarinet; Satoshi Takeishi – drums, percussion)

The Cold War, which involved nefarious covert intelligence-gathering, officially terminated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Current events, such as Chinese computer hacking and the NSA debacle over cell phone and email surveillance, have proved that espionage continues to flourish. One of the Cold War holdovers still in operation are the puzzling number stations: radio channels which periodically transmit coded numbers presumably to hidden agents. Not much of interest to most people, except to trombonist/guitarist Curtis Hasselbring, who used those curious shortwave broadcasts as a springboard to compose and improvise a set of eight tunes for his 50-minute album, Number Stations, released back in January by the forward-thinking Cuneiform label. This is spy music the likes of which no one has heard before.

Hasselbring gained support for his ambitious project in 2010, from Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works Commissioning and Ensemble Development program. From there, Hasselbring formed a new ensemble with members from two groups he leads: the New Mellow Edwards quartet, with Chris Speed (clarinet, tenor sax), bassist Trevor Dunn, and drummer Ches Smith (who replaces John Hollenbeck, who customarily mans the drum seat for the New Mellow Edwards); and Decoupage participants Mary Halvorson (guitar), Matt Moran on vibes and marimba, and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. Hasselbring brought in his original compositions and the result was recorded in January, 2012

Hasselbring utilizes a wide aural palette, which can be perceived from the get-go on the opener, “First Bus to Bismarck,” where Takeishi’s roundabout, percussive elements function as an introduction to the amply-coordinated piece, which also features Hasselbring’s commodious trombone, a progressively restless vamp highlighted by Dunn’s Morse code-like bass and Halvorson’s repeating guitar figures.  Hasselbring’s liner notes mention “numeric information stored in the composed music” and “cryptic instructions for the musicians in the ensemble.” Whether or not that’s true (Hasselbring and the other artists are probably the only ones who know for sure), it does mean listeners may pay special attention and thus concentrate more than usual. While most cuts have recurring and cyclic patterns, there are definite surprises. The briskly cheerful “Make Anchor Babies” dips into bossa-buffeted waters, where a conventional Latin-jazz theme is manipulated with eccentric detours. Amid the jaunty arrangement, the septet doles out boisterous progressive-jazz elaborations (notably Halvorson’s otherworldly guitar effects and Takeishi’s eerie percussion), some quirky horn passages from the dueling Hasselbring and Speed, and animated rhythmic breakouts. Halvorson (who is no stranger to unpredictable music, she also contributed to Living by Lantern’s Sun Ra tribute) employs a Sonny Sharrock-esque quality to the multi-tiered “Green Dress, Maryland Welcome Center, 95 NB,” where a jazz-rock stance encounters an undulating free-jazz temperament. Before the tune concludes, the piece (which refers to a certain interstate rest stop) deviates into a subtle section with strummed guitar and Speed’s dulcet clarinet.

The group stretches out on the lengthy “It’s Not a Bunny,” where Moran extends himself on vibes. “It’s Not a Bunny” at times steps into a noir-ish ambience, as the band creates a feeling of itchy anticipation, accentuated by fluctuating rhythms, and Speed’s impassioned and dissonant tenor work, which brings to mind what he has provided for The Claudia Quintet. The session’s final number, “37° 56′ 39″ by 111° 32′,” points to an actual location which can be found online (a punned clue is Satan’s spine: go ahead and look for it), and is a bright, optimistic ender which dispenses with free or avant-garde inclinations, enhanced by a double-drums beat and some fine Hasselbring/Speed interaction.  Number Stations is best experienced like an accomplished book (for example, perhaps John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy), with each track acting as a sort of chapter, with certain sections establishing the plot, characterization or scenes, and some parts veering off into unexpected directions which ultimately have a place in the overall setting. By the end, and with careful consideration, there is much to think about and unravel, and conceivably some audiophiles can even decode bits missed on an initial listen. If that description is not enticing enough, the CD booklet has droll, collaged illustrations, by Steven Erdman, whose artwork for each tune embodies opaque references which involve tuning forks, old stereo equipment and era-specific women in underwear.

TrackList: First Bus to Bismarck; Tux Is Traitor; Make Anchor Babies; Green Dress, Maryland Welcome Center, 95 NB; It’s Not a Bunny; Stereo Jack’s Bluegrass J’s; Avoid Sprinter; 37° 56′ 39″ by 111° 32′.

—Doug Simpson




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