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 musiciansthey can go in any direction. That's the kind of profile we've tried to establish in the last 15 yearsthat 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 doand this is what Thad did as welleverything 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 bitespecially 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."