Trombonist/composer Curtis Hasselbring has long been intrigued and inspired by 'number stations' , which are a type of shortwave radio station characterized by spoken word broadcasts that stream numbers, words, letters, tunes, or Morse code, often in a variety of languages, and in many cases used to transmit secret information to spies. His love for these types of broadcasts has led him to create an instrumental jazz concept album of sorts called Number Stations, and he's brought along Mary Halvorson (guitar), Trevor Dunn (bass), Matt Moran (vibes and marimba) and Chris Speed (tenor sax and clarinet), both of The Claudia Quintet, and dual drummers Ches Smith and Satoshi Takeishi, to help flesh out this project.
As you can tell by the song titles, Hasselbring's fascination with this topic has led him to name each piece so you can imagine what some of these covert messages might actually be about. The instrumentation fits squarely in the jazz/jazz-fusion/jazz-rock realm, and throughout it's extremely well done, with the occasional solo spot dropped in to mimic what some of these 'codes' might sound like. "Tux is Traitor" features some dissonant vibes as well as sax that are meant to create the tone of one of these mysterious broadcasts. "First Bus to Bismark" and "Make Anchor Babies" both contain some melodic elements, but the group often veers into disjointed, free-form territory that not only shows off the skills of the players, but keeps the concept of the album alive. These were not meant to be toe-tapping jazz numbers after all. "It's Not a Bunny" might be the most adventurous piece here, with some complex vibe passages and snaking sax that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a mid-'70s Frank Zappa album and intricate drums bashing away underneath. Hasselbring's beefy trombone plays off biting barbs from guitar, sax, and vibes on the avant-garde "Stereo Jack's, Bluegrass J's", and closer "37° 56' 39'' by 111° 32" might be the closest we get to accessible jazz here, as this one has more of a 'big band' sound and finalizes the album in exciting fashion.
Free-jazz fans will no doubt find a lot to appreciate here on Number Stations, which for some might be a challenging listen, but if you don't mind your jazz a little on the wild side and a lack of melody at times doesn't scare you, there's a lot to enjoy on this one.
First Bus To Bismarck 07:51
Tux Is Traitor 07:56
Make Anchor Babies 06:53
Green Dress, Maryland Welcome Center, 95 NB 04:20
It's Not A Bunny 10:26
Stereo Jack's, Bluegrass J's 04:31
Avoid Sprinter 01:54
37° 56' 39'' by 111° 32 06:25