On the surface, Tim Hagans' Alone Together looks more like a Marc Copland disc with trumpeter Hagans as the leading voice. The rhythm section is Copland's longstanding trio, responsible for albums that include the pianist's resplendent Some Love Songs (Pirouet, 2005). The set list, like many of Copland's, is a mix of re-imagined standards and the pianist's own writing, which (while undeniably mainstream) occupies a position left of center, the result of a uniquely ambiguous and sophisticated harmonic aesthetic.
But Alone Together belongs to Hagans by virtue of its greater propensity for fiery swingers. Hagans' first Pirouet disc, the sublime Beautiful Lily (2005), more clearly inhabited Copland's stylistic territory, with greater emphasis on impressionistic writing and playing, though the trumpeter contributed four of that album's eleven tracks, alongside two Copland tunes, one standard, and four spontaneous duet inventions. To be sure, while Copland has never been averse to pulling out some stops, as he did on his Both / And (Nagel-Heyer, 2006), his albums invariably lean towards introspection. Alone Together does gaze inward occasionally, but is largely brighter and more boisterous than most of Copland's discography.
If there's a single precedent to be found with Copland's oblique harmonic approach and the quartet's overall modus operandi, it's the expansive experimentation of Miles Davis' mid-1960s quintet with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Ruckert, stylistically outspoken and confident, channels Williams' visceral energy on the fiery post bop of Copland's "Over and Back." Built around quotes from a number of standards, but pulled together in ways nobody but Copland could, it features a solo from Hagans that, in its weaving of brisk motifs through Copland's shifting changes, is one of Alone Together's high points.
Gress and Rckert lay back on the soft classic "You Don't Know What Love Is," mirroring the unpredictable terrain taken by Miles' quintet over two nights in 1965 and documented on The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 (Legacy, 1995), except that Hagans is in far stronger voice than Miles was on those particular evenings. "Alone Together" swings with intent, but Gress and Ruckert don't make it facile; Ruckert is particularly attuned to the risks Copland and Hagans take at every opportunity, well-served by their drummer's ability to inject the unexpected while avoiding meaningless non sequiturs.
Miles' characteristic warm tone, centered on his horn's mid-range, must have deserted him at the Nickel, but Hagans's sound is so full-bodied that, even on occasional reaches for the stratosphere, it's never brash. His muted horn on the closing ballad, "Stella by Starlight," is more poignantly touching than Miles' fragile vulnerability.
Mainstream records are rarely filled with the same irreverence and spirited sense of adventure that made Miles' second quintet remarkable even when they were playing tired standards. No, this isn't groundbreaking music, but by referencing Miles' ear-bending group, Alone Together brings excitement back to the mainstream, thanks to its invention, interplay and musicality, as opposed to the much easier-to-find demonstrable chops.
Personnel: Tim Hagans: trumpet; Marc Copland: piano; Drew Gress: bass; Jochen Ruckert: drums.