Curtis Hasselbring is a confoundingly creative New York-based trombonist/guitarist/composer, and one of the most noteworthy rising stars on NYC's avant jazz & beyond/New Music scene. Born in Indiana and raised in Ashland, Ohio, he started playing trombone in 5th grade and got serious about the horn as a freshman. At the same time, he also studied classical guitar and soaked up 1980s rock ‘n’ roll. Hasselbring credits his stepfather’s extensive LP collection for turning him on to jazz, particularly Miles Davis (“I listened to Kind of Blue every night for years”). Part of a prodigious wave of musicians who studied at New England Conservatory in the mid 1980s, Hasselbring connected with Boston peers like Josh Roseman, John Medeski, Jim Black, Donny McCaslin and Chris Speed. He also played in Russ Gershon’s Either/Orchestra, which introduced him to Afropop, the AACM, the Meters, all kinds of things you wouldn’t hear in the context of music school, and that all had a huge impact."
Since settling in New York City in the early 1990s, Hasselbring has performed and recorded with a daunting array of artists. A founding member of Slavic Soul Party, he’s collaborated widely with Medeski Martin & Wood, Bobby Previte, Andrew D’Angelo, John Hollenbeck, Satoko Fujii, the Jazz Passengers, Frank London, Tom Harrell, Matt Darriau Ballin’ The Jack, Cuong Vu’s Vu-tet, Roberto Rodriguez, and Anthony Coleman among many others. He appears on more than 60 recordings including two earlier New Mellow Edwards releases on Skirl Records.
A prolific composer, Hasselbring has written music for a wide variety of contexts, including chamber ensembles, television scores, and large jazz ensemble pieces as well as electronic works. Currently Hasselbring performs with the klezmer rock combo Golem, a trio with saxophonist Briggan Krauss called Han Blasts Panel; Trio Blasphemy with trumpeter Ben Holmes and tuba expert Marcus Rojas; and the wind trio The Spokes with Phillip Johnston on soprano saxophone and Andy Biskin on clarinet. In addition, he plays with New Mellow Edwards, a group he launched in 2001 with Speed, Dunn and a different drummer, John Hollenbeck (now Smith) in a nod to a Mellow Edwards group he had with Jim Black in the late 1980s. He also creates electronic/electro acoustic music under the name Curha (two self-released recordings), and remixes for Slavic Soul Party, Frank London, Golem and other artists.
In 2013, Hasselbring released a recording on Cuneiform Records called Number Stations, inspired by the persistence of mysterious shortwave radio broadcasts that date back to the start of the Cold War. Mysterious coded messages float through the ether aimed at secret agents who, if they still exist, serve as pawns in a twilight struggle fought deep in the shadows. Born out of a suite composed with a 2010 Chamber Music America Doris Duke Grant for the Creation of New Jazz works, Number Stations serves as an apt topic for Hasselbring’s music, which combines propulsive grooves, dark humor, ambient spaciousness and highly choreographed ensemble passages. The album brings together Hasselbring’s two primary bands, the longstanding New Mellow Edwards with Chris Speed (tenor saxophone and clarinet), Trevor Dunn (basses) and Ches Smith (drums and marimba), and the more recent quartet Decoupage featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson, vibraphonist Matt Moran and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi.
The highly unusual instrumentation is ideally suited for Hasselbring’s fascination with patterns that expand, contract and decay. In a sly echo of Spy Vs Spy skullduggery, Number Stations often plays elements of each ensemble against each other. The music is often sardonic and virtuosically playful, but Hasselbring is under no illusions about the deadly serious origins of the covert signals. “No government acknowledges they exist, but it’s pretty well established they were sending out codes to agents,” Hasselbring says. “It’s a Cold War artifact, and they may still be going. In Number Stations the tunes are fictitiously coded messages, part of a whole narrative I developed about a spy receiving a series of coded messages.” More than a forum for his sly and slippery investigations into stripped down harmonic and melodic movements, Number Stations serves as a thriving conspiracy against musical clichés and tired jazz conventions.
A playful sprinkling of free-form percussion introduces a slowly unfolding sonic tapestry that eventually encompasses skittering marimba accents, jagged guitar, and expressive trombone lines that make the whole thing cohere. [Tempo: Mid-tempo]
Dirty, low-end guitar lines lay down a rhythmic bed that leaves plenty of room for coloristic vibraphone splashes, crater-deep trombone growls, and some adventurous sax lines. [Tempo: Mid-tempo]
Martial-sounding drums drive visceral, rhythmic brass riffs before things give way to a freewheeling aural exploration that finds trombone, sax, and guitar going from graceful to guttural and back again. [Tempo: no fixed tempo]
Things open with a guitar and drums banging out a raw, garage-rock feel before the track begins to deconstruct, with horns, percussion and guitar lines creating the musical equivalent of a cubist painting. [Tempo: no fixed tempo]
Lyrical trombone lines sketch out an abstract but elegant musical portrait before a more formal musical setting kicks in, adding trace elements of bebop. Vibes and sax contribute slip-sliding solos before the whole thing comes to a close with a powerful rhythmic thrust. [Tempo: Mid-tempo]
Sax and trombone lines leap around, across, and between each other in an open-ended musical conversation, while guitar, vibes, and rhythm section subtly distort time and space all around them. [Tempo: no fixed tempo]
Angular melodic phrases alternate with bursts of freeform madness, as sax, trombone, and vibes create a minimalist structure that grows more intense with each repetition. [Tempo: Mid-tempo]
Swinging drums and low-end guitar grinding lay out a strutting rhythm, over which trombone delivers some sultry, bluesy solos. [Tempo: Mid-tempo]