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Opening Night: The Tim Hagans Quintet at Birdland

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Tim Hagans Quintet
Birdland
New York, NY
July 8, 2009

Established as the "Jazz Corner of the World" in 1949, Birdland is the quintessential jazz club in New York City. Tim Hagans, the hi-powered trumpeter, and his quintet began his run of four consecutive nights at the club on a Wednesday night in July. At the start of his first set, he acknowledged his appreciation for the club, its history and its savvy audience. On stage, his quintet was made up of a powerhouse of musical talent. Marc Copland on piano, John Abercrombie on guitar, Drew Gress on acoustic bass and the ubiquitous Bill Stewart on drums, all settled into their respective places for the start of two sets of what promised to be an enjoyable musical evening.

The music started off with a piece entitled "No Words," which immediately established the tone of what to expect with its fast-paced tempo. With little warm-up before attempting this quick jaunt, Hagans' chops needed to loosen up a bit. Missing some notes before easing into the purity of tone that he often achieves, he was soon in his element. Gress was especially animated in his playing. He skillfully maneuvered the entire range of his instrument in a nonstop kinetic display of facility and speed. The relentless Stewart pushed the band forward with his boundless energy. A shoeless Copland and pensive Abercrombie accompanied, somewhat hesitantly at first, as Hagans stretched out.

The second song was a 12-bar blues that, according to Hagans, was played in every key, giving it an airy feeling of being suspended in time and space. It was aptly titled "Space Dozen" and was a foray into a musical gauntlet both interesting and at times otherworldly. Hagans, Copland, Abercrombie and Gress each took solos and carefully navigated the ever-changing musical format. It proved only moderately successful and sometimes seemed to lack direction.

On "Immediate Left" Hagans, who was now fully warmed up, reached into the higher register of his horn and played at his most intense. After a high-energy display he turned the reigns over to Copland, and the pianist throttled it down a notch during a characteristically reflective solo. He is often at his best when allowed the time and space to explore the nuances of a song in a slow and introspective manner. Watching him build ideas from a germ of a thought is a treat that deserves to be savored. Copland's soloistic style also invited subtle interaction from his fellow musicians. In this live setting, his sensitive touch was somewhat obscured by Stewart's energetic approach. The turbulent Stewart can drive musicians into propelled heights of great expression, and with Hagans he did this effectively. With Copland, and later Abercrombie, however, Stewart's rumble drowned out a good portion of the pianist's nuance.

Stewart is a wonderfully creative player who traverses his entire set. His never-ending rhythmic diversity and his penchant for colorations can add a great deal at the right time in the right setting. Gress was particularly adept at standing up to Stewart's muscularity and fed off of his energy while still preserving his own identity.

The singular ballad of the set was a song Hagans wrote for one of his three daughters—a source of endless inspiration for any father—entitled "Beautiful Lilly." Hagans played with the mute, evoking a Miles-like sound, and displayed a lyrical beauty that was quite moving. Copland was more in his element here, and his hands crawled crab-like across the keyboard as he moved from thoughtful intimacy to raucous passion. Abercrombie, who at times seemed the odd man out during most of these proceedings, allowed his more sensitive and expressive sides to be exposed on this number. His airy, floating runs on his electric guitar added a tasteful touch as Stewart played brushes in his most subdued performance of the evening.

The final number was a driving piece entitled "First Jazz," a reference to Hagans' first exposure to jazz as a youth. At a Mongo Santamaria concert, the trumpet playing of Ray Maldonado caught the young Hagans' attention. Hagans, Copland and Abercrombie played synchronous lines on the finale, and the communication between the musicians flowed quite naturally. Copland took the first solo, and it was here that the interplay between Copland, Gress and Stewart really gelled. As members of the third installment of Marc Copland's New York Trio on the album Night Whispers (Pirouet Records, 2009), Copland, Gress and Stewart have already worked and recorded together. In this recording, Stewart's unquenchable drive instigated a more animated response from Copland with impressive results. Stewart's solo drum performance was a crowd pleaser and showed why he is one of the most sought after sidemen in the business.

It was inevitable that the last songs would be the strongest of the set, having been the first of a four-night engagement. Surely, what was exhibited suggests greater things to come. Hagans' approach to the trumpet combined a balanced, classic style with a spontaneity that treats his listeners to a satisfying experience. One wonders how this incredible quintet performance would have evolved on July 10 and 11, when drummer Bill Stewart was replaced by Billy Hart.

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