Noir Unease and Cinematic Wit on Curtis Hasselbring’s Number Stations
A number station is a Cold War artifact, a mechanical voice broadcasting seemingly random words and numbers for spy networks around the world to decode. Curtis Hasselbring’s latest album, Number Stations works a deviously ambitious spy-versus-spy battle between his two main bands: the long-running New Mellow Edwards with Chris Speed on tenor sax and clarinet, Trevor Dunn on acoustic and electric bass and Ches Smith on drums and marimba, along with his quartet Decoupage with guitarist Mary Halvorson, vibraphonist Matt Moran and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. Hasselbring is one of the great wits in jazz: that and an ever-present element of suspense take centerstage here. The whole ensemble has a ball with this. Ostensibly there are secret messages embedded in the music: the whole thing – gorgeously recorded by Hugh Pool at Excello – is streaming at Cuneiform Records’ Bandcamp page, fire it up and see what you can decipher!
Takeishi’s faux Morse code sets the stage for Halvorson and Moran teaming up with a mysterioso insistence on the opening track, First Bus to Bismarck, whose eerie swing brings to mind the early Lounge Lizards. Hasselbring’s moody trombone signals a loosening with an almost shamanistic, hypnotically percussive ambience. Tux Is Traitor anchors spiraling vibraphone in more insistent pedalpoint, an offcenter Speed tenor solo and some deliciously warped Halvorson lines, a spy theme on acid. Warped cinematics hit a high point with the droll, period-perfect kitchen-sink bossa and faux-shortwave flutters of Make Anchor Babies, inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s score to the 1956 Hitchcock film The Wrong Man.
With its no wave cinematics, punk rhythm and skronky guitar harmonies mingling with the vibes, Green Dress, Maryland Welcome Center 95 NB evokes mid-80s John Zorn. It’s Not a Bunny (how about these enigmatic titles, huh?) builds to a pretty standard funk groove, Halvorson adding background menace, Moran’s long, pensive solo signaling a woozy cross-pollination between the two ensembles. It’s the first example of the free, easygoing improvisation that the group builds on the following track, Stereo Jack’s, Bluegrass J’s, a playfully jousting round-robin.
The brief, coyly titled Avoid Sprinter brings back the punk stomp juxtaposed with lively ripples. The album winds up with a slyly uptight little gremlin theme: Hasselbring should sell this to the Simpsons or South Park folks for their Halloween episodes. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2013 page here at the end of the year if we make it that far
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