Even though it was his third Grammy nomination, trumpeter Tim Hagans clearly sounded surprised on Tuesday, Jan. 4, during his quintet's set at New York City's Birdland when he announced that his song 'Box of Cannoli' had been nominated in the Best Instrumental Composition category. From 'The Avatar Sessions,' the song and album features the Hagans-led Norrbotten Big Band with special guests. But though the lineups of the 17-piece band and the live quintet on this set were quite different, the material was all tunes from the albumHagans explained this away by pointing out that many of the tunes for big band started out as small-group tunes anyway.
Regardless of the setting, Tim Hagans the composer has a lot of ideas. His songs never stay in one place for long, usually having an opening statement, then moving into a heart of the song where different soloists each get different accompaniment of tempo and instrumental texture. Duke Ellington was famed for writing for his soloists, and it's apparent that Hagans adheres to this school of thought. This intellectual curiosity works well for big-band arrangements, keeping things fresh and interesting, but it also is quite impressive with a small groupthe quintet showed a surprisingly large number of different looks and sounds.
Hagan's playing has often and rightly been described as a combination of Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, having the warm earthiness of Brown's tone matched with his willingness to play long lines, while also having some of that lean Davis elegance when he does quiet things down. It's a sound straight out of the bebop trumpet canon, but Hagans has (like Davis before him) opened his sound up to be more inclusive of all of the developments that have happened in the intervening years. This is particularly apparent on his electronic-leaning 'Animation/Imagination.'
The night opened with a tune titled 'Buckeyes,' which is a nod to Hagans and his friend and occasional collaborator Joe Lovano (both grew up in Ohio). After the opening, guitarist Vic Juris had the first of what would be many fine solos that evening, moving through a wide variety of sonic texturessometimes he had the airiness of a Bill Frisell alternating with a more direct attack of Pat Metheny. Once Hagans jumped in for his own solo turn, the song's pace picked up to breakneck speed with the trumpeter squeezing a series of liquid-sounding notes out of his horn. Not a minute passed before the band dropped out to leave the trumpeter to duel head-to-head with drummer Obed Calvaire.
The band conjured a funkier vibe on a boogaloo written for Randy Brecker called 'Boooo.' Brecker wasn't on hand to play, but Hagans did just fine as a stand-in on his own song. Juris provided a dreamy guitar-effect-laden series of chords in the background as Hagans played. He then stepped to the fore with a guitar solo that played off the stop-start rhythmhe'd rattle off a flurry of notes, bend the last one around a bit, then leave a dramatic pause before jumping off again. With his head down and hips jutting out, the guitarist looked almost like a question mark onstage, but there was energy and certainty to his playing that was undeniable.
Watch Tim Hagans and Randy Brecker's Live 'Boooo' Video
Things went in a decidedly bebop direction on the playfully named 'Palt Seanuts' (the title is a takeoff on 'Salt Peanuts' but also references a Swedish dumpling called palt). Here Hagans and Swedish saxophonist (and Norrbotten band member) Karl-Martin Almqvist play conventional unified heads on their horns as well as playing solos at a good clip. Instead of channeling Charlie Parker, Almqvist sounded more from the John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins school of playing, but he didn't make much of an impression otherwise.
The set came to a climax with a lengthy version of 'Box of Cannoli.' Here is where the quintet was really put through its paces. At one section well into the song, each band member seemed to represent a different section of an orchestra, playing parts that were interlinked instead of all tied to a single melody. Using a Juris solo as a bridge, the song dissolved into a ballad segment that sounded as if another song had been dropped in. Hagans carried the melody as the band softly supported, offering the most lyrical moment of the evening.
It wasn't long, however, before the band kicked it back into gear with an energy that carried over into closer 'Rufus at Gilly's,' which featured several solos by the song's namesake, Rufus Reid. With the bassist otherwise occupied with his solo, Juris and Calvaire lock in nicely to give this mid-tempo tune a strong rhythmic foundation. The discordant, loud section was a little jarring after the subtlety of the bass solo sections, but it encapsulated night's set anywayconstantly shifting, imaginative and challenging.