Tim Hagans: Trumpet and Musical Elegance

R.J. DeLuke By

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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 ease—it 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 heroes—Peter Erskine, George Garzone, Dave Liebman, Rufus Reid and Randy Brecker—to 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.

The Norrbotten band does a half-dozen or so tours a year in Europe. Says Hagans, "There are great musicians that come from Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia that we have as soloists. But the last five or six years, we've been bringing over my heroes and the band's heroes from the New York scene. So all of the guys on the record, including Rufus Reid and Peter, have done tours with the band. I arrange their music, for the most part, but I always try to write one original for the occasion, that they haven't played before—one of my own compositions. It gives me a chance to be a composer as well as an arranger and write for a specific soloist.

"The Avatar Sessions are the features that I wrote specifically for them for when they came to do the tour with the big band. They all have varied styles but, as I mentioned, they're my heroes. I've followed their careers. I've played with all of them many times. I'm aware of what they stand for artistically. Then I try to bring that out though my eyes. For example, Liebman—when he came over, I arranged some wild tunes of his and thought the one thing we needed was a ballad. He has such a great soprano sound that I felt, why not feature him on the unexpected?"

Hagans also stresses the importance of his relationship with Erskine. "It's his company The Avatar Sessions is released on. Also, he loves playing with the band and I love having him in the band. All this music was written with him and the way he colors and shades and propels and drives in mind, as the drummer. It's a thrill. To have somebody with that much experience come in and play with us, it's just incredible. He's been very supportive of the project. It's a cooperation, musically and financially, between the Norrbotten Big Band and Fuzzy Music. We're elated that he wants to continue this."

He adds, gleefully, "I'm very particular about drummers. Some drummers, the way they put the time and the feel, it's very hard for me to lock in. But with Peter, it's like I'm not even playing the trumpet. The trumpet is playing itself, and I'm just sitting back and enjoying."

He was also pleased to have Bob Belden, also a noted musician and arranger, as the album's producer. "I knew I needed somebody in the booth listening as we recorded to monitor what we needed to do over, what was good, what we could accept—to have somebody with big ears in the recording booth. Because I'm also playing on a lot of the tunes, so I'm switching gears between conducting and playing. I needed somebody like Bob, who has the world's biggest ears and who could also function as a studio engineer. He's multi-talented, so he knew exactly what to do and the sessions ran very smoothly because of him. We've worked for 20 years together, so there's a lot of nuances and subtleties [in communication] that are wordless. He just looks at me," and the signal is clear whether a take was good or there is something that might have to be done over, says Hagans.

Hagans says reaction to the disk has been good in Europe, where it was released last year. The music was played live at some European festivals late last year, with Erskine on drums. The band will also be doing festivals this summer.

The trumpeter's association with the band stems from his tenure with the Kenton band in the 1970s. "I played with Stan Kenton for three years, starting in 1974, and we did a tour of Sweden. I met a lot of musicians, and it seemed like it would be a great experience, when I left the band after three years, to go to Europe and experience that scene. Because I was a fan of the music: Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band, and a lot of trumpet players that didn't exactly come out of the New York tradition, like Tomasz Stanko and Enrico Rava. Europe had a fascination for me. Something different was going on there. So when I had the chance to move there and travel and play with a bunch of different people, I thought it would be a great experience, which it was."

Because of the connections he made in Europe during that time, he decided to travel back and forth with some regularity to play with those musicians: "That's when I became aware of the Norrbotten Big Band, which started in the early '80s." When the existing artistic director departed, "they were looking for someone who had kind of an international reputation—somebody who could write and front the band as a soloist, but also somebody was aware of how the Swedish culture/politic works and the system for arts funding, as well as could speak Swedish. I was probably the only one in the world at that time that fit that job description," he says with a good-natured chuckle. "So they called in '95. I did a couple concerts with them and decided that it was a great match to play with these amazing musicians. And they liked me, so it's been 15 years now." He commutes back to Sweden about eight times a year.

The band recently embarked on a tour with Tim Ries and his project that covers the music of The Rolling Stones. "I'm not doing any of the writing for that," Hagans says just days before his departure on that venture. "I'm just leading the band and functioning as a soloist. Matt Harris did all the arrangements. There are a lot of rolling Stones fans everywhere. This is a way for us, on this Swedish tour, to bring people in who wouldn't normally come to our concerts. Hopefully they'll come to other concerts as well."

He adds, with pride, "The Norrbotten Big band can play anything. We've done productions with Swedish folk musicians (and incorporated them into wild orchestrations), world music musicians—they can go in any direction. That's the kind of profile we've tried to establish in the last 15 years—that it's a band that can play anything. And the The Avatar Sessions shows they're coming from modern big-band jazz as well."

Hagans is happy to write for those musicians. No matter the style, no matter the twists and turns, the band runs the material down the way it's supposed to. And with Hagans, there's no predictable direction that writing may take.

"Thad Jones is the biggest influence," Hagans says of his writing. "Of course, the other people I've played with: Maria Schneider, Bob Belden, Bob Mintzer. Everybody who's written for big band I can probably name as an influence. But what I've tried to do—and this is what Thad did as well—everything was based on his way of improvising on the trumpet, or in his case the cornet. So all the melodic lines and then the emotional support, which is harmony, comes from the way I play when I'm improvising in a small-group situation. Then the flexibility and the events that happen at the spur of the moment in those situations is what I've tried to orchestrate, so that it doesn't sound written. Even in a big band setting, it sounds like it's happening unplanned and in-the-moment, like in a small group. That's kind of like the overall way I'm trying to write. The influences are definitely Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer, but through the way I improvise with my melodic language."

He's writing other things besides material for the Norrbotten band. Other musicians within the band are coming up with charts, as well as people outside the organization. "This gives me time to work on some other things that are not necessarily geared toward this specific project." His arranging skills are mostly self-taught. He says that while he writes best on project deadlines, "I write everywhere. I can concentrate on airplanes or in waiting lounges or on a bus, or hotel rooms, at home with a piano. Some of my best stuff has been written late at night in hotel rooms after a gig, when everything is calm. The day is over, successfully completed. Then I get in a zone at midnight for a couple of hours, when the rest of the world is sleeping, at least in the time zone I find myself in. Then good things happen," he notes. "Also at 30,000 feet, good things happen because you're in a confined, limited area. Believe it or not, sitting in a cramped, economy-class airplane helps concentration. I don't know why."

As for his trumpet playing, television seems to have played a fortuitous role in the process for the Dayton, Ohio, native. Fans can be thankful for television shows that featured trumpet players. He started on the instrument at the age of 9, in the early 1960s. "Herb Alpert was a big deal. He was on TV. You heard him everywhere. I just loved the sound of the trumpet. Al Hirt was on TV a lot. My parents had his records. Doc Severinsen, when I was allowed to stay up until 11:30 [at night, for The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson, on which Severinsen led the house band] to at least hear the theme song to The Tonight Show and then see what Doc was wearing. These are all reasons why I wanted to play the trumpet. But it was basically the sound."

His parents had a record that featured Rafael Mendez and Harry James. "Also, I was listening to a lot of pop music, and there was trumpet in pop music a little bit—especially after I started playing a few years and was in high school— Blood, Sweat & Tears [which at one time employed Brecker and, later, the brilliant Lew Soloff on trumpet] and Sly & the Family Stone with Cynthia Robinson, Chicago."

His ideas about guitar surfaced at this point in the '60s, when the guitar was the emblem of rock music. "I wanted to be the Jeff Beck of the trumpet. I didn't have a guitar. The trumpet was an approved instrument in my household, so I tried to play the trumpet like the guitar players I was hearing with rock bands," explains Hagans. "Then I heard Coltrane and said I want to play the trumpet like that, as well as like Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis. I was infatuated and knocked out with the trumpet sound and all the trumpet players. Then I saw it as an instrument that I can take influences from other instruments to try to play it a little differently."

Hagans listened to all kinds of music as a kid. On a family vacation to New Orleans in 1970, he heard Ray Maldonado with Mongo Santamaria. Maldonado became a hero, and Hagans soaked up the albums he purchased of that band. Big bands of the day—Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and more—came through Ohio, and the trumpeters in those bands were also an influence. Miles' live recordings In Person: Friday Night at the Blackhawk and Saturday Night at the Blackhawk (Columbia, 1961) brought new ideas. But a more modern sound tilted the scales for the budding musician. Never much of a transcriber of solos by his heroes, Hagans preferred to listen and extract qualities, particularly emotional qualities, from artists he heard.

"When I was 14, that's about the time Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) came out," he says. "That was maybe the first jazz record I bought that was a new release. I bought records from earlier '60s later. But when Bitches Brew came out, I bought it. It was life changing. That's when I really started listening to jazz."

He adds with a chortle, "I also wanted to be an ice hockey player and played for five or six years in youth leagues, but I had an eye accident when I was 15 and decided it might be safer to be a trumpet player."

Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw became big influences. "Freddie is probably the guy who knocks me out consistently every time. I was lucky to know Freddie and play with him. We did a record for Blue Note, Hubsongs (Blue Note, 1998). Marcus Printup and I were the two trumpet players. Freddie was the producer on that record, in the studio. He was an amazing person and the ultimate trumpet player."

Hagans attended Bowling Green State University in 1972, but in a couple years, that was left behind. His education would continue, but on the road. "I was 19 when I started with Stan Kenton, and that was an incredible thrill. I'd heard all of the big bands up in Ohio. There are lots of colleges and clubs in the cities, so I heard all of the big bands. They were all still traveling. Ellington, Basie, Woody Herman, Maynard, Buddy Rich. Even Don Ellis. But Stan was always my favorite, and when I got the call, that was an incredible thrill. We did one-nighters for 50 weeks a year. That was a great experience."

After leaving Kenton, he joined the Woody Herman Orchestra, but soon moved to Malmo, Sweden, playing in a variety of settings, including with the Swedish Radio Jazz Group, Orjan Falhstrom and the jazz/funk group White Orange. His association with Thad Jones began when he played with the Danish Radio Band and, later, Eclipse. He was a member of the Ernie Wilkins Almost Big Band for a time, and gigged with musicians including Sahib Shihab, Kenny Drew, Horace Parlan, Ed Thigpen and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen.

Returning to the States, he got involved in teaching, including at Berklee College of Music, where he also benefited from playing in that heavy music scene. Eventually, the New York scene summoned him, and Hagans was involved with the likes of Joe Lovano, Schneider and others.

"I'm very fortunate and lucky and thankful for all my opportunities. I feel, even though I'm not 19 anymore, I still feel I'm 19 for my desire for hearing new sounds and creating things and being influenced by others," says Hagans. "I feel like there's a lot more to come. I'm trying to get back on the New York scene a little more, sitting in, and playing with my own band. Hopefully, that will lead to more opportunities."

Selected Discography

Tim Hagans/Norrbotten Big Band, The Avatar Sessions (Fuzzy Music, 2010)
Tim Hagans, Alone Together (Pirouet, 2008)
Tim Hagans, Beautiful Lily (Pirouet, 2005)
Tim Hagans/Norrbotten Big Band, Future Miles (ACT, 2002)
Bob Belden, Black Dahlia (Blue Note, 2001)
Tim Hagans/Bob Belden, Re: Animation, Live in Montreal (Blue Note, 2000)
Tim Hagans, Animation/Imagination (Blue Note, 1999)
Tim Hagans/Marcus Printup, Hubsongs: The Music of Freddie Hubbard (Blue Note, 1998)
Marc Copland, Softly (Savoy Jazz, 1997)
Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Coming About (Enja, 1994)
Tim Hagans, Audible Architecture (Blue Note, 1995)
Tim Hagans, No Words (Blue Note, 1994)
Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Evanesence (Enja, 1994)
Thad Jones, Eclipse (Storyville, 1980)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 2: Erik and Gunnar Westergren

Page 4: Courtesy of Tim Hagans

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