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JAZZ REVIEWS : Out of the Rough and Into the Clear : Outdoor Laguna Market an Idyllic Setting for Gerard Hagen to Show He's Become a Smooth Improviser


LAGUNA BEACH — Gerard Hagen has been doing his homework.

A few years ago when he was playing with sax man Dan St. Marseilles' quintet, the Lake Forest resident was a promising jazz pianist whose playing had some rough edges.

Sunday, on the outdoor stage at Laguna Village Market, Hagen worked with a trio and showed that most of those edges have been sanded smooth. That means he's now a spiffier, more complete improviser, and a better musician in general.

The setting for Hagen's afternoon performance was idyllic. The market--a rustic assemblage of shops and a restaurant nestled in a grove of protective eucalyptuses--is situated 100 feet above the Pacific Ocean on Coast Highway, just east of downtown.

The market's bandstand, a white, wooden hexagonal-shaped affair, is parked on a grassy plot, below the market's bricked patio. Add ocean breezes and a mostly cloudless sky and you have a delightful atmosphere in which to hear music.

Hagen seemed to prosper here, despite playing a rather limited-sounding Roland U-20 portable synthesizer; it ranged from attractive bell-like tones to complaining, whiny notes.

The leader was solidly surrounded by upright bassist Chris Colangelo and drummer Dick Weller--two very empathetic partners--and together, for the final set, the threesome explored a program of jazz classics, pop standards and originals.

Wayne Shorter's prancing "Children of the Night," first recorded by Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers on the superb 1961 "Mosaic" album, was a challenging opener.

A difficult tune that Hagen and company made appear easy, "Children" swayed between a tension-building section, underpinned by Colangelo's fat bass sound that offered a repetitive figure, and a "release," where the tune goes to surging swing time and the music flows.


Hagen, his gray locks wafting in the wind as he bent his head sideways over his instrument, soloed deftly, his lines moving gracefully in and out of the composition's subtle corners.

He began his phrases with punchy thoughts, expanded those initial ideas by rhythmically and melodically juxtaposing them--turning them this way, then that to create an energized stream of sound. These statements were always concluded cleanly.

The keyboardist's accompaniment was just so. Colangelo's pliant-toned lines formed a buttress to the Hagen's improvisation, and Weller provided light cymbal taps and effervescent drum accents, giving Hagen firm but very elastic support.

On "Children," Colangelo offered one of several excellent solos. He worked in the upper range of his instrument, his perfectly picked notes coming in neat packages that were rhythmically on the money, and that used space as a primary element.

He favored small, chunky groupings--three descending notes, a similar idea but starting a tone lower, perhaps followed by a five-note line that ascended in a rush. The bassist then tied these strands together into a greater fabric, and occasionally would unleash a long, serpentine-like fragment for contrast.

There was a like precise-yet-exploratory mood to the trio's other numbers.

Tadd Dameron's timeless ballad, "If You Could See Me Now," found Hagen delivering the melody, as Colangelo's bass and Weller's sandpapery strokes on brushes created a backdrop as comfy as an easy chair.

Hagen's "Far Horizon" was a tasteful bossa nova, and here the composer offered soft chords along with lines that leaped, and Colangelo dropped in another first-rate improvisation.

"Beautiful Love" was but one tune where Weller revealed his assured skills as a soloist, here trading eight-bar phrases with his colleagues. He approached the drum set musically, starting with whirring taps of the cymbals and gradually incorporating whaps and slaps at his drums which, pleasingly, had a singing quality.

Sufficient employment seems to be the only thing Hagen's group is lacking. The band, which usually features ace young trumpeter Kye Palmer, returns to the same site on May 15.

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