Two Simultaneous Jon Irabagon Releases: Quartet & Solo

Mark Sullivan By

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Saxophonist Jon Irabagon has worked in a wide variety of settings, including Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the Mary Halvorson Quintet, Barry Altschul's 3Dom Factor, and the Dave Douglas Quintet. For the 2015 release on his own Irabbagast Records label he released two records on the same day: Behind the Sky, with his quartet plus guest trumpeter Tom Harrell; and Inaction is An Action, for solo sopranino saxophone. The two albums could hardly be farther apart stylistically. Taken together they display a truly remarkable range, from straight-ahead jazz to the most experimental.

Jon Irabagon
Behind The Sky
Self Produced

Behind the Sky focuses on the theme of grieving and the way we deal with loss. Which could make for a dark program—but the music is more about reflection and celebration of the lives, spirit, and legacy of the departed than grief. In keeping with such a universal topic, Irabagon is at his most accessible here. Mainstream jazz is the order of the day, although no less engaging and challenging than any of his projects. Stylistically it can be seen as a follow-up to The Observer (Concord Records, 2009); it's also in line with his work as a member of the Dave Douglas Quintet.

Irabagon's empathetic quartet is made up of pianist Luis Perdomo (Ravi Coltrane, Miguel Zenón, Dave Douglas); bassist Yasushi Nakamura (Wycliffe Gordon, Victor Goines, Myron Walden, Darren Barrett); and drummer Rudy Royston, named DownBeat Magazine's Rising Star Drummer (Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas, Rudresh Mahanthappa). They are joined by renowned trumpet and flugelhorn player Tom Harrell on three tracks. Irabagon's composing and playing have grown wonderfully since the earlier quartet recording, and the band is easily the equal of the all-stars who played on that record.

Highlights include the catchy tune and easy swing on opener "One Wish;" Royston's energy surge during the closing vamp of "The Cost of Modern Living;" guest Tom Harrell's gentle dissonance on "Obelisk;" the lovely duet between Perdomo and Irabagon on "Lost Ship at the Edge of the Sea;" and Irabagon's overdubbed conversation with himself on tenor and soprano saxophones on the title tune.

Jon Irabagon
Inaction is An Action
Self Produced

When Irabagon started playing sopranino saxophone more in recent years, he saw an opportunity to contribute something unique to the solo saxophone tradition, as his relationship to the instrument was new and not influenced by other sopranino players (one of the smallest members of the saxophone family, it is tuned in the key of Eb, and sounds an octave above the alto saxophone). The results are "experimental" in the truest sense, as he explores all of the possible ways of playing the instrument, including many extended techniques. Which puts the project in the tradition of stated solo saxophone influences like Ned Rothenberg, Douglas Ewart, Evan Parker, John Zorn, Steve Lacy, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, and others. There's something inviting about Irabagon's explorations—as if he is asking the listener along for the journey—but they are probably still an acquired taste for the average jazz listener.

"Revvvv" begins the program with unpitched wind sounds, giving immediate notice to the listener to expect unconventional approaches. Other unusual effects include glissandos (sliding between notes) on "Acrobat," a sound like volume pedal swells on "Ambiwinxtrous," and a stuttering effect on "Liquid Fire" (which also features extended moto perpetuo playing). Occasionally a melody breaks out (as in "The Best Kind Of Sad"), but the focus tends to be more on texture. Irabagon employs a wide variety of techniques over the course of the program, including key slaps, multiphonics, circular breathing, playing without a reed and without a mouthpiece, vocalising into the horn, and more. The album is only 38 minutes long—but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in intensity.

If nothing else, this simultaneous release gives an answer to the question non-avante garde fans often ask about records like Inaction is An Action: "But, can this guy really play?" Yes, he can.

Tracks and Personnel

Behind The Sky

Tracks: One Wish; The Cost Of Modern Living; Music Box Song (For When We're Apart); Still Water; Obelisk; Sprites; Lost Ship At The Edge Of The Sea; Mr. Dazzler; Eternal Springs; 100 Summers; Behind The Sky (Hawks And Sparrows).

Personnel: Tom Harrell: trumpet, flugelhorn (4, 5, 9); Jon Irabagon: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Luis Perdomo: piano; Yasushi Nakamura: bass; Rudy Royston: drums.

Inaction is An Action

Tracks: Revvvv; Acrobat; What Have We Here; The Best Kind of Sad; Hang Out a Shingle; Ambiwinxtrous; Liquid Fire; Alps.

Personnel: Jon Irabagon: sopranino saxophone.


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