Trumpeter Tim Hagans, it appears at times, can almost fly under the radar. His splendid playing has been heard in a variety of contexts over the years, always creative, expressive, expansive. Maria Schneider expresses glee when he's able to be a part of her orchestra and help interpret her musical creations. He's been part of the Stan Kenton organization and played alongside the wonderful Thad Jones. He brings a bright, buoyant style to every occasion.
"Everybody that I played with, I play a little differently," says Hagans, a thoughtful individual who is as articulate in conveying his thoughts as he is on his instrument. "Everybody has always been accepting of the way I play, which is coming from a little different area than most trumpet players. I'm not sure why that is, but I developed a certain way of playing over changes that is making the changes, but is weaving around in kind of a different way. A lot people don't accept that, because it sounds weird and is not coming exactly from the bebop language." But, he says, people with whom he has had musical associations over the years "were totally accepting of [my] new way to weave through harmony. So I felt supported and at home and I could experiment and play anything I wanted to play with all of those people."
There was a time, in the 1960s when rock music that mushroomed to the forefront of American music, that Hagans pondered becoming as guitarist. He chuckles at the thought that those aspirations, as well as the pull of John Coltrane in the 60s, may have colored his approach to the trumpet.
Some of his phrasing and approach comes from "trying to play like guitar players and saxophone players, with their ability to play all over the horn and all over the guitar, and not feel limited," he says. "The trumpet is somewhat of a limiting instrument if you compare it to the tenor saxophone or the guitar, as far as playing through the different registers and articulation. I'm not saying those instruments are easy. But I've always taken some inspiration from the easeit sounds like they can execute these things with a lot of ease. I think that's why I play a little different and I look at harmony a little different. I look at the important notes that, perhaps, people avoid, but there's a way to make those notes work with the other, more approved, notes so you still get tension and release."
Perhaps Hagans and his style fly under the radar at times because he spent about five years living in Sweden and returns there frequently to lead the Norrbotten Big Band. He's been back for some time now, though, and has been establishing more of a presence in the New York City scene, commuting in from his home in eastern Pennsylvania. But his association with the Norrbotten Band, an extremely talented aggregation, has been unbroken for the last 15 years.
The splendor of that group is on display on The Avatar Sessions (Fuzzy Music, 2010), on which Hagans has written and arranged all the material. He calls it "the culmination of a very special artistic journey." And he's added some special musical friends and heroesPeter Erskine, George Garzone, Dave Liebman, Rufus Reid and Randy Breckerto the mix.
Hagans has been musical director of the big band since 1996 and writes with those musicians in mind. For the Avatar project, he's also penned the compositions with the guests' abilities in mind, particularly the resourceful drumming of Erskine. The result is a collection of distinctive tunes that express excitement, vitality, joy. They're superbly executed by the band and the soloists are universally exquisite. It contains everything good about a big band album.
Dig the snaking, vibrant trumpet statements from both Brecker and Hagans on the funky "Boo." ("The scariest trumpet player around," says Hagans of Brecker). Its melody seems simple, and is not when the band saunters off between trumpet solos. The colorations of "Box of Cannoli" take the listener on a careening musical trip, then segue into a serene and soft place before soaring off again. The composer calls it a love song. Liebman's feature is "Here With Me," a ballad on which he wrings out the emotion from his soprano in a manner people have perhaps not heard often from the man whose playing is usually as hard-driving as the vibe of his New York City home. "Palt Seanuts" is a bouncing tribute to bop that features a fine Hagans solo and gives Norrbotten band mates some time to shine. The entire tells a variety of tales and does so with great style from start to end.