Curtis Hasselbring’s Secret Agent Bands

The trombonist creatively melds two ensembles on 'Number Stations'

The scene opens in a fleabag motel. Over a soundtrack of drums and percussion that percolates gently in the distance, the anti-hero packs his suitcase with determination. A nervy mix of surf guitar and vibes sets up an ostinato that implies our character’s anxiety as he paces in a bus depot, about to embark on his next assignment. The full band kicks in for the main title, and a trombone solo ramps up the drama as our character barrels down a dark highway.

This is the sort of film noir-era imagery that comes to mind upon hearing “First Bus to Bismarck,” the opening track off New York-based trombonist Curtis Hasselbring’s latest release, Number Stations (Cuneiform). The album, an eight-part suite, was inspired by the enigmatic shortwave radio stations, dating back to the Cold War, that broadcasted voices reading a series of numbers, words or letters thought to be assignment information for spies. Regardless of whether this concept is apparent to listeners-Number Stations uses no broadcast audio-the trombonist’s writing, and the way he merges two different bands, results in an album brimming with cinematic allusion.

The idea came to Hasselbring, 47, when he was applying for a Chamber Music America grant and needed a theme. “It’s an interesting subject and kind of mysterious,” he says. “A lot of how I deal with music is sort of visual. I have my own way of seeing music. That’s sort of the mystery. And the visual element, of people listening to radios to get these signals, got my imagination going. [So did] the fact that numbers relate to music so closely.”

Number stations have received some interesting public attention in recent decades. The Conet Project compiled nearly 150 broadcasts from around the world into a four-disc set in 1997. In 2002 the rock band Wilco released the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which used a broadcast that featured the album title. (According to reports, the band grabbed the sound bite from the Conet set without permission from its label, leading to a legal dispute. Other artists to sample the Conet recordings include director Cameron Crowe, in his film Vanilla Sky, and Kronos Quartet.) Despite such publicity, the truth behind the broadcasts has yet to be disclosed. “Governments deny it,” Hasselbring says. “There were some examples of the decoded messages from Cuban stations. One was like, ‘Catch an airplane to such and such place.’ I think it’s pretty much established what they are. Governments, being what they are, have to say they have no responsibility.”

Hasselbring achieved the appropriate sound for his album by combining two of his own bands. The New Mellow Edwards, which combines garage-rock grooves and acoustic jazz, includes Chris Speed (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Trevor Dunn (basses) and Ches Smith (drums, marimba). Decoupage, more of a chamber group with free moments, consists of Mary Halvorson (guitar), Matt Moran (vibraphone, marimba) and Satoshi Takeishi (drums, percussion). Hasselbring was also able to play his first instrument, guitar, on a few tracks.

Moods shift frequently, sometimes within one movement, with West Coast jazz and four-on-the-floor soul cropping up along the way. “It’s Not a Bunny,” the album’s 10-minute centerpiece, turns some of the musicians into double agents. “The two bands get played against each other, and there are alliances and espionage written into how it works,” Hasselbring explains. “They play the same song, with me being the common element. But the New Mellow Edwards plays a grooving thing in 4, and Decoupage plays something in 9/8 that is in a different key. The first thing that happens is the vibraphonist joins the New Mellow Edwards and starts soloing over that rhythm section.”

Guitarist Mary Halvorson says Hasselbring’s writing is very distinct. “There’s a lot of beauty in his compositions,” she explains. “There’s a lot of great melody and harmony, but they’re also kind of strange. They take unusual turns.

“Because he [was first] a guitarist, he really writes for the guitar,” she adds. “All of my guitar parts are intuitive to play on the instrument. It might seem obvious, but it’s way less common than one might think.”