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The title of trumpeter Tim Hagan's latest Blue Note recording, Animation Imagination, aptly describes the tenor of his new tunes, a batch of gritty, electronic, groove-driven numbers informed by the seminal jazz-funk fusion of the late '60s-early 70s. With his angular and lyrical trumpet lines arcing over the oftentimes speedy bears, Hagans takes the music out to the edge, so far so that even he and his band of cohorts were surprised by the results of their collective interplay. "The suspense of improvisation is what's missing from jazz today," says Hagans. "That whole retro thing, where it's play-in-the-style-of-fill-in-the-blank, was necessary I suppose because you'd hate to see '50s bop die out. But it got so that people were just playing the approved licks and the accepted songs. The music became so predictable I knew exactly what was coming next in a tune. We set out to record an album that built on adventure and spontaneity."
Once again, Hagans is teamed with producer Bob Belden, who also appears on several numbers either blowing soprano saxophone or laying down reversed acoustic piano tracks. "This is as much his recording as it is mine," explains Hagans, who tours with Belden as well as records with him, most recently on his Tapestry Blue Note covers project. "Bob is a mastermind. We had many conversations about the concept of this album. We talked about taking chances, making emotional statements and playing with a variety of soundscapes and textures."
It didn't hurt that Belden is actively involved with reissuing Miles Davis' music from the early '70s. "Bob is coming out of how Miles made that music and why it still sounds so fresh today," says Hagans, who cites Davis in addition to Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard as important influences. "It's extreme jazz, jazz in the moment, gonzo jazz. I know there are a lot of fanatics into Miles' '60s quintet, but I was always partial to his fusion period. I loved Live/Evil and his live Fillmore records. To me, Miles was playing the sound of freedom."
After talking with Hagans about the high-energy, brightly-colored direction the trumpeter wanted to pursue, Belden sent him a stack of drum 'n' bass CDs, including a disc by progammer Roni Size, an album by the band Cujo and a recent Bill Laswell CD, Oscillations. " They're all typical drum 'n' bass records with programmed drumming and bass ostinatos and no solos," says Hagans. "I thought they sounded great. The drum-trumpet hookup is important for me. I love playing melodic sketches over those fast tempos. I just close my eyes, play weird stuff and let my imagination run free."
Belden also contacted three different programmers - DJ Smash, DJ Kingsize and Matthew Backer - to cook up densely textured programmed tracks, which formed the foundation of several numbers. Half the tunes - including "Snakes Kin" with its futuristic atmospherics and probing trumpet echoes and "28 If" with its zipping beats and steamy cauldron of fusoid whimsiness - were recorded in this way. "I played along with the preprogrammed material live in the studio," Hagans explains. "Sometimes I was by myself; sometimes I had the whole band with me. No one knew what to expect, so we just played. We didn't talk about key, tempo or mood. That's how we got the suspense into the music and kept it completely fresh. Most of these tunes are first takes."
The rest of the tracks on Animation Imagination developed out of free improvs. Case in point: the end track "What They Don't Tell You About Jazz," which was conceived during sound check. "We were playing while adjusting the sound levels, and it sounded good," says Hagans. "There was no key or tempo, just a free group grope. We chopped off the beginning and faded the piece in." Spirited impromptu sessions were also responsible for the surging "The Original Drum and Bass" which opens the album and the tempo-shifting "Trumpet Sandwich."
Of course, Hagans stresses, much of the credit goes to his bandmates. "It's so great to play with people like [pianist] Kevin Hays, [synthesizer player] Scott Kinsey, [bassists] David Dyson, Ira Coleman and [drummer] Billy Kilson. They're all certified crazy people who aren't afraid to take chances. Put one person in the mix who's playing it safe and you notice right away that something's off. These guys were all reacting spontaneously to what they were hearing."
The 44-year-old Hagans, a veteran of the Woody Herman and Stan Kenton big bands as well as a session man who has worked with the Yellowjackets and Steps Ahead, made his Blue Note debut as a leader in 1994 with No Words. Produced by Joe Lovano, the disc found the "chops of steel" trumpeter covering a wide swath of jazz, from lyrical swing to frenetic funk. Hagans followed with 1995's Audible Architecture, largely a trio album with Kilson and bassist Larry Grenadier.
"That album was natural to me, but it was different because of the trio format," says Hagans, who also teamed up with fellow trumpeter Marcus Printup to pay tribute to Freddie Hubbard on last year's Blue Note release Hubsongs. "You have to be doing something distinctive these days because there are so many jazz trumpeters. In the '70s and '80s, it seemed like there weren't very many, but today, well, there's no point making the same kind of record that Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton or Wallace Roney makes. I like what they're all doing, but for Animation Imagination, I knew I really had to stretch it out and go for something new."
With Animation Imagination, Hagans is expanding on the jazz-funk tradition of the late '60s'early '70s. While the music of that period was sparked by freedom and flamed by improvisational brilliance, it wasn't long before fusion peetered and devolved into predictable smooth jazz. "That's just sophisticated office music," says Hagans. "Somehow the music lost its energy and became sterile. What happened? I don't know. Maybe people were afraid of being compared to Miles and fled from that jungle, hard-driving music he was making then. But that's what I'm after now."
Based on some informal market testing he's done, Hagans guesses that the younger generation of jazz lovers, ages 15 to 24, could well be the audience this music will appeal to the most. In recent years while doing master trumpet classes at various schools, Hagans responded to the question, "What are you doing next?" by playing trumpet lines over the mix of Laswell's Oscillations. "After I recorded Animation Imagination, I played a tape a these classes and the kids flipped over it," says Hagans, who then cautions, "This is definitely not mainstream music. If you're an adventurous listener, there's a lot to feast on here. This album is for open-minded people who want to be challenged for seventy minutes."