Written by Lydia Hillenburg, posted by Jason Hillenburg
Artwork by John Lind Whitby
Jim Hagen’s nine song release Jazzical highlights his unique talents for refurbishing a long-standing musical art form, but it also shows his creativity for recasting recognizable formulas and motifs in an idiosyncratic fashion. Hagen certainly has a command of the necessary fundamentals; his guitar work freely moves between styles without ever losing its creative direction and his mastery of invoking mood ensures many of these songs are every bit as memorable as the standards they, in some cases, emulate. Purist and casual listener alike will hear much to admire on Jazzical. The genre chops of Hagen and his collaborators are apparent from the first, but they present their excursion into smooth jazz in such a melodic and accessible fashion that even those unfamiliar with the genre will find much rewarding on this release. This Kansas City native and Southern California transplant has written and recorded a work with great musical merit and deep personal meaning. We are being for having heard it.
The album opens with its first single “Pismo Beach” and the smooth jazz label is warranted here. The term, unfortunately, has a vague of condescension to me and it’s clear that there’s nothing self indulgent or inauthentic about this song. The graceful and elegiac manner of the musical arrangement’s unfolding makes it all the more memorable – Hagen and his cohorts don’t waste any notes or time communicating the song’s ideas and mood. Jazzical’s second track “Manha de Carnaval” hits an unexpectedly muted note thanks to the relatively sedate tempo, but its languid mood soft pedals its lush sophistication and melodic excellence. This is one of the album’s most tasteful efforts and the keyboards lead the way with only well timed and measured support from Hagen’s guitar. A brief keyboard flourish ushers in “Alexandra” and the slightly mournful, smoky ambiance exuded from Hagen’s guitar never lacks for melody. It’s a consistent standard he maintains throughout the length of Jazzical – no matter the mood or direction, melody is foremost among his concerns. Bass plays a much more prominent role in the song “On the Scene” and Hagen’s guitar takes an even more compositional approach than on earlier numbers. The unwavering support from light percussion helps keeps this moving with urgency and the gradual addition of elements like keyboards help expand its musical reach.
Bass once again plays a key role in a song as “All Blues” unrolls with a loping, patient bass opening. It’s nothing song where effects are accumulated over time rather than achieved with one fell swoop. There’s some particularly lovely guitar, fluid and with great feel, in the song’s second half. The title song does an excellent job embodying itself musically – the quasi classical guitar style employed in the introduction soon morphs into a delicious bit of jazz riffing, an entire band playing together rather than against one another, and marks another high point for Hagen on this release. The album’s final cut “Lazy Sunday” finishes Jazzical on a bluesy note without ever dampening the energy level. It’s a soft landing for a great album. Jazzical establishes Jim Hagen and his collaborators as among the finest jazz musicians writing and recording today.