An artist always gleans inspiration from life, whether it be by personal interaction with others, by careful observation of the world around him, or sometimes, by being touched by the work of another artist. For the musician Tim Hagans, his love of cinema and his love of the work of the independent film-maker John Cassavetes, became a source of musical inspiration. The culmination is his new album:
It’s not such a stretch to imagine two fiercely independent spirits, Cassavetes and Hagans, eventually finding some common ground. Cassavetes was known as an accomplished television and film actor- his work can be seen in both Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, two nominally famous productions. As a filmmaker, Cassavetes wrote, directed and produced twelve independent films from 1959 through 1986. His most well received films are Faces from 1968, for which he was nominated for an Academy award for best screen play, and A Woman Under the Influence, a film that garnered him a Best Director nomination by the Academy Award Committee in 1974.
Hagans takes the main characters from six of Cassavetes’ films and composes six compositions that represent some notable characteristics of each of these character’s film persona. The seventh and final composition is a tribute to the director himself and is a musical representation of Cassavetes’ passion for cinema as realized in his acting, writing and directing. To achieve this artistic goal, Hagans has teamed up with the NDR Big Band-a world class institution from Hamburg, Germany that he has worked with before- writing the music, playing on much of it and conducting it all.
The first composition is titled “Leila” and comes from the lead character in Cassavetes’ directorial debut from 1959, the film Shadows. This was a landmark of independent film-making, as it broached the then taboo subject of interracial relationships, set in the Beat generation of the late nineteen fifties.
Hagan’s starts the film noir score of “Leila” with a sensuous alto saxophone solo by Fiete Felsch. The music has some wonderful interplay between guitarist Stephan Diez, bassist Ingmar Heller and drumming phenom Jukkis Uotila. Hagans utilizes a broad spectrum of tones to create the moody, Beat-era sound of cool. A sleek evocative score that has elements of transcendent beauty and aching poignancy.
“Richard Forst” is the main character from Cassavetes’ film Faces, a middle-aged husband who suddenly finds himself dissatisfied with his married life and seeks a divorce as the easy answer to his problems. Hagans allows the big brass sound of his orchestra to send out a powerful blaring intro that bespeaks of a sudden realization, an awakening. Hagans clarion trumpet solo is powerful, but purposefully waivers a bit, just like Forst whose initial bravado gives way to doubt and confusion. Hagans reaches the high registers effortlessly and slurs his notes with a masterfully controlled legato. The composition features some accomplished bass work by Heller, who breezily walks through the middle section solo, and in counterpoint to Edgar Herzog’s bass clarinet and Dan Gottshall’s rambunctious trombone work, before the swing comes back into the mix and tenor man Lutz Buchner is given a chance to blow.
The composition “Harry, Archie & Gus” is a reference to the three main characters of Cassavetes’ film Husbands from 1970. These are three middle-aged men who just lost a friend unexpectedly to death. Realizing their own mortality, they try desperately to recapture their fading youth. Hagans starts the raucous music appropriately with three musical voices playing off each other; Klaus Heidenreich on trombone, Claus Stotter on flugelhorn and Fiete Felsch on alto. The three seemingly trying to stay connected, but each following his own path, as demonstrated by their differing solo approaches. Meanwhile drummer Uotila, bassist Heller and guitarist Diez provide solid rhythmic backing until the whole band is reunited in brash harmony before Hagans introduces a brief cadenza that features the sparse, sensitive piano of Vladyslav Sendecki.
“Seymour Moskowitz” is one of the main characters in the film Minnie and Moskowitz, an unlikely love story between a lovelorn museum director and a parking lot attendant. Hagans uses a rock inspired driving rhythm with power chords provided by guitarist Dietz, with Hagans playing a series of frenzied trumpet lines. The whole band eventually joins the in the driving progression until Hagans relieves the tension with a short melodic horn-led break in the action. Christof Lauer provides a tenor solo of varying intensity as the band continues its march onward. The music takes another break in the action to allow the creativity of percussionist Marcio Doctor to shine. Hagans conducts the band through a series of escalating counterpoints that bring the action to another peak before the whole band shouts out, presumably a line from the film, “Baby, I think about you so much that I forget to go to the bathroom.” The band has another short break where guitar, bass and drums carry on a nice shuffle over which Hagans plays a penetrating muted trumpet solo that is very reminiscent of Miles Bitches Brew sound.
“Mabel Longhetti” was the desperately tragic figure in Cassavetes’ Woman Under the Influence, and Hagans knows precisely how to evoke a bewildered melancholy that surely must have been part of this character’s psyche. Hagans uses some breezy flute, clarinet and bass clarinet work by Felsch, Peter Bolete and Herzog to great effect, but it’s Sendecki ‘s perceptive piano solo that really sets this wistful stage. It’s as if Mabel is in a web of melancholic introspection that she can’t see her way out of. When the entire band swells up and plays this gorgeous melody, the orchestra acts in a unified voice, a glimpse of a life outside of oneself. Sendecki gets another chance to play with resplendent creativity on the next passage where he is shrewdly accompanied by Heller’s booming bass and Utopia’s airy brush and stick work. Hagans again builds the tension to a peak before reprising to Sendecki’s piano with an accompanying flute and woodwind chorus. This leads to the whole band finishing on a peacefully resolution. Sendecki’s solo piano finishes up this piece with two measure solo reprise.
The intro of “Cosmo Vitelli,” the protagonist from Cassavetes’ quirky The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, is a deep-toned, ominous chorus of horns, the prominent voice being Herzog’s looming bass clarinet. Guitarist Diez plays a disjointed, abstract solo on electric guitar that fades into an echoed dispersion. Hagans enters the second movement with a strangled-like sounding, muted trumpet as the band plays the repeating motif. Altoist Peter Bolte offers a squeaking high register solo that cries of frenzy. This band, under Hagans’ direction, is switchblade responsive, tonally diverse and mesh voices like the gears in a fine swiss movement.
The final composition is Hagan’s homage to the director, his passion and his dedication to a fiercely independent creative vision, titled “John Cassavetes”. Hagans is no stranger to this mantra. His music has consistently shown a penchant to chart its own course. Hagans runs his brass and woodwinds through complex passages that brim with vitality. He directs the band into a straight ahead swing at about the two-minute mark, soaring on his open trumpet like a caged bird set free to fly. Guitarist Diez always seems to be on the verge of breaking out into a raucous fusion solo as he, Hagans and Uotila let loose-a brash rumble that for me represents Cassavetes’ independent spirit. As is his habit, Hagans builds up the furor and then relaxes the tension as he brings you back with a tonally rich moderation in intensity.
Throughout the album the NDR Big Band responds to the chicanery of his compositional twists and turns with the precision of the rack and pinion steering on a fine sports car. Hagans is a superb and fiery trumpet player and with Faces Under the Influence a Jazz Tribute to John Cassavetes, he has also proven himself to be a formidable composer in the big band format.