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Jon Irabagon: Invisible Horizon

Troy Dostert By

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One would imagine that a musician as chameleon-like as saxophonist Jon Irabagon, capable of playing in any genre, in any context, at any time, must have a real challenge finding unexplored territory. Equally adept at mainstream blowing, as on Observer (Concord, 2009), energized free-bop with Barry Altschul's 3dom Factor, the no-holds-barred mania of his assorted outings with Mostly Other People Do the Killing and, of course, the many consistently creative projects under his own name, Irabagon would appear to be someone who truly can—and will—do it all, if given the chance. Hence his founding of Irabbagast Records in 2012 as a way to facilitate this irrepressible musical adventurer's multifaceted excursions.

In keeping with Irabagon's refusal to be pigeonholed, his latest two-disc release, Invisible Horizon, represents two very different sides of his craft. The first disc, Invisible Guests, may even signal something new for Irabagon: a six-movement chamber suite for piano and string quartet, with Matt Mitchell featured on the keys. The second, a solo performance entitled Dark Horizon, may not be quite as pathbreaking, given that he released a prior solo album, Inaction Is an Action, in 2015; but his choice of instrument here is distinctive, in that he's using a very rare Conn mezzo soprano saxophone, a horn only manufactured for a brief time in the 1920s. Oh, and it should also be mentioned that he recorded it in the Emmanuel Vigelund Mausoleum in Oslo, Norway—a site with acoustics so extraordinary that they create a nineteen-second reverb. Irabagon's ability to surprise no longer seems that surprising, really.

Invisible Guests, the chamber suite, is bookended by Irabagon's sopranino saxophone, first played without the mouthpiece to introduce the suite and in the conventional manner to conclude it. Reading Irabagon's intriguing and thought-provoking liner notes, one learns that his goal was to craft the suite as a metaphysical reflection on the spiritual dynamics of mahjong, in which the game represents the interactions between the four winds and the unpredictable dynamics of luck and ill will. The Mivos Quartet, comprised of violinists Olivia de Prato and Lauren Cauley Kalal, violist Victor Lowrie Tafoya and cellist Mariel Roberts, are thus employed as the game's "players," while Mitchell emerges periodically to alter or disrupt the game's flow, based on the inscrutable logic of fortune. It's a charming conceit, and with Irabagon's sopranino opening and closing the suite as a kind of god-like "overseer," it has all the makings of a rather stimulating reflection on fate, freedom and human striving.

The suite is indeed a marvel, with the Mivos Quartet proving themselves exceedingly capable of negotiating Irabagon's heady motifs. These musicians are quite comfortable collaborating with avant-jazz visionaries, having worked previously with Nate Wooley on Atemwende (Ignoring Gravity Music, 2012) and on Ned Rothenberg's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (Tzadik, 2010). Their two pieces with Irabagon juxtapose the mysterious with the earthly, as Irabagon's peculiar musings provide contrast with the quartet's measured restraint. His mouthpiece-less sopranino is as bizarre as one would imagine, hovering over the quartet at the outset with strange, atonal flutterings, while his abstract, angular agitations at the conclusion are just as stirring, prompting furious surges from the strings. In between we have the bracing engagement between the quartet and Mitchell, which really represents the heart of the suite. Adroitly mixing composed and improvisational sections, Irabagon's chamber writing is filled with motion and rich dynamism; Mitchell's dramatic burst to enter the end of the first movement adds a key layer of intrigue to the music, and he continues to provide that element of the unknown and the uncertain to the rest of the suite. "Red Four," the fourth suite, is particularly stunning, with the quartet's impassioned bursts colliding with Mitchell's forceful shards in relentless power, only finding respite with a somewhat incongruous, tango-inspired coda. Winding within, alongside and counter to the strings, Mitchell executes his role throughout the suite perfectly, alternately bringing concord and chaos to the proceedings—and showing himself in the process to be as cross-stylistically proficient as Irabagon.

The second disc, Dark Horizon, is likely to be compared with other recent efforts, like John Butcher/Joe McPhee's At the Hill of James McGee (Trost, 2019) and Susana Santos Silva's All the Rivers (Clean Feed, 2018), which have also utilized locations with unusually expansive acoustics, thus allowing the space itself to become a pivotal aspect of the recording. The opening segment, "Entrance," reminds us of Irabagon's melodic gifts as he teases out an enticing theme with warmth and feeling, allowing the generous reverb of the venue to envelop his flowing lines. Other moments veer outward more decisively, exploring the timbre and sonority of the Conn mezzo soprano, which has a mellower, less acerbic edge than the sopranino featured on the suite. Even so, Irabagon has plenty of tricks up his sleeve during this performance, with suppressed growls wrapping up "Dragonwort" with an ominous air, and the assorted squeaks, splutters and chirps of "Forest and Field" adding more layers of oddness to the recording. Even stranger may be the most Irabagon-esque moment on the album: a surreal, yet somehow lyrical, rendition of "Good Old Days," the Little Rascals theme song.

While the two discs couldn't be more different, they do share in common Irabagon's abiding interest in the spiritual realm. Just as metaphysical mysteries come into play during Invisible Guests, Irabagon ponders in his album notes on Dark Horizon about the "souls" of instruments, a topic he began exploring on Inaction Is an Action and which gained additional urgency when he played the Conn, especially in the otherworldly confines of the Emmanuel Mausoleum. If instruments have their own intrinsic qualities, their own personality, so to speak, do they not "direct" musicians toward certain modes of expression—thus making them essentially spiritual partners in the creative process? It may seem a dubious proposition at first; but when encountering the exceptional music on this release, one is at least willing to entertain the possibility. To lead us to encounter the world in new ways: is there anything more we can ask of our artists?

Track Listing: CD1 Invisible Guests: Vignette For Mouthpieceless Sopranino Saxophone And String Quartet; Invisible Guests: West Wing; Heaven’s Blessing; Benevolence, Sincerity, And Devoutness; Red Four; The Dreamer; Catching The Fish At The Bottom Of The River; Vignette For Sopranino Saxophone And String Quartet; CD2 Dark Horizon: Live From The Mausoleum: Dark Horizon (entrance); Dragonwort; Forest & Field; Holy Smoke; Good Old Days (Theme From The Little Rascals); Eternal Rest; Half A World Away; Dark Horizon (exit bow).

Personnel: Jon Irabagon: sopranino saxophone, mezzo-soprano saxophone; Matt Mitchell: piano; Mivos Quartet: Olivia de Prato: violin; Lauren Cauley Kalal: violin; Victor Lowrie Tafoya: viola; Mariel Roberts: cello.

Title: Invisible Horizon | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Irabbagast Records

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