Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Jim Hagen - Jazzical (2017)

Artwork by John Lind Whitby

Written by Robert Elgin, posted by blog admin

The story of Jim Hagen’s album Jazzical isn’t one of mere virtuosity alone. Make no mistake – Hagen and his collaborators have a lot of musical talent to burn and could put on a jazz clinic at will. The story of Jazzical, instead, is much more about love and fidelity. There’s obviously been great care taken by the musicians to nail these performers precisely without ever draining them of their life and robbing them of their ability to breathe. Hagen and his creative partners are obvious students of the form – some might call this music smooth jazz and they certainly would have it at least partially right, but the label is a bit of a misnomer. Jazzical, at its heart, is a purist’s exercise further enlivened by an unexpected and artful pop sense that never cheapens the material. The nine song collection is utterly steeped in traditional jazz, but it is never inaccessible to casual fans.

There’s a wonderfully understated luxuriousness surrounding the opening track and first single “Pismo Beach”. Hagen’s compositions have an abundance of melody, but another key component of their success is the ear-catching outside the box changes that popular music devotees will find quite entertaining. “Manna de Carnaval” has a loose Latin feel, but the main attraction here is listening to Hagen’s guitar exchange inventive lines with the keyboardist. Everything is tempered in just the right way – they create a definite mood without ever lapsing into showy pyrotechnics. Hagen takes on a bit of a departure with the next song “D-Tuna”. This has a little more of a nebulous approach at first before definite melodic lines emerge from the mix. The jangling guitars take it very close to rock/pop music territory in a way that few other songs do on Jazzical.

The mood darkens some with the meditative “Alexandra”, but Hagen and his musical partners never lose sight of their obligation to lay down a good melody for their listeners. The title “All Blues” might create an impression that Hagen’s track abandons his established style in favor of an outright foray into the blues genre. There are some strong bluesy influences running through this, particularly in its changes, but Hagen retains the same sound here that defines much of the material on Jazzical. The album’s title cut shows his willingness to take chances and mix other sounds into his personal stew – the introduction of classical elements into his jazz aesthetic gives this performance qualities the others lack and seems quite appropriate for the album’s centerpiece number. The penultimate number on Jazzical has a distinctly more upbeat, jovial mood with the song “Piece of Cake” but, as always, tastefulness rules the day and Hagen is carefully to orchestrate this number with just the right amount of force. This is as fine of an effort as you’ll hear in contemporary jazz and shows both fidelity to the form while still being unafraid to redefine it for the artist’s own personal use.

Grade: A

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