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Curtis Hasselbring: Number Stations

Bruce Lindsay By

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Number stations are, apparently, shortwave radio stations that intermittently broadcast random series of numbers: a Cold War communication system that still lingers. Number Stations is an album by trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and his band, the wonderfully named New Mellow Edwards, that takes its inspiration from these mysterious transmitters.

The tune titles are rather enigmatic, but help is at hand. The sleeve notes reveal that the titles "are hypothetically decoded from the numeric information stored in the composed music..." providing cryptic musical instructions to Hasselbring's band mates. If that doesn't clarify matters, each tune is illustrated by Steven Erdman's artwork—amusing, colorful but still, ultimately, enigmatic.

The music itself reveals few obvious links to its inspiration beyond the repetitive Morse Code-ish bass lines on "First Bus To Bismarck" and "Tux Is Traitor" but the lack of explication needn't be a concern. Hasselbring's compositions need no explanations to be enjoyed—or perhaps part of the pleasure is in the puzzle as Hasselbring develops his own world of espionage.

The musical continuum of Number Stations extends from the moody, mildly threatening, vibe of "Tux Is Traitor"—lightened by Matt Moran's crystalline vibes—to the irresistible dance groove of "Make Anchor Babies" and the rock-meets-jazz feel of "Green Dress, Maryland Welcome Center, 95 NB." The presence of Ches Smith and Satoshi Takeishi, as well as Moran, gives the band a highly percussive core and ensures strong, punchy, rhythms in partnership with Trevor Dunn's rolling bass lines. Hasselbring, saxophonist Chris Speed and guitarist Mary Halvorson weave melodies with hints of alt-country weirdness (the coda to "Make Anchor Babies") and jagged aggression ("Avoid Sprinter").

Hasselbring formed the Mellow Edwards in 1988. The New Mellow Edwards is an expanded lineup, incorporating Halvorson, Moran and Takeishi from another Hasselbring ensemble, Decoupage, to form a septet. Hasselbring uses the enriched musical combination to its fullest on this album—if the Cold War spies are still out there, Number Stations should bring them in from the cold.

Track Listing: 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'.

Personnel: Curtis Hasselbring: trombone, guitar; Chris Speed; tenor saxophone, clarinet; Mary Halvorson: guitar; Trevor Dunn: acoustic bass, electric bass; Matt Moran: vibraphone, marimba; Ches Smith: drums, marimba; Satoshi Takeishi: drums, percussion.

Title: Number Stations | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records


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