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 beforeone 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, Liebmanwhen 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 acceptto 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 reputationsomebody 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.