Behind the Sky
Inaction is An Action
Jon Irabagon has released two vastly divergent albums simultaneously before. 2013 saw the releases of Unhinged, by the saxophonist's slightly more conventional group Outright, while I Don't Hear Nothing But the Blues Volume 2 featured a rather abrasive 40-minute free improvisation with guitarist Mick Barr and drummer Mike Pride.
But when talking about polar opposites, go no further than these two discs. Behind the Sky is the long awaited followup to The Observer, a straightahead album that Irabagon made for Concord Records following his victory at the 2008 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition. Inaction Is An Action presents the Mostly Other People Do the Killing band member playing eight tracks of solo saxophone - on the rarely heard sopranino horn. There are musicians who can play it straight and fit just as comfortably in free settings, but most of them choose one over the other as a career move. Irabagon might be the first to take both paths without apologies to either, and he brings the same amount of conviction to each setting.
The group on Behind the Sky features the rhythm section of Luis Perdomo (piano), Yasushi Nakamara (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums). Tom Harrell joins them on three tracks, adding trumpet and flugelhorn. Irabagon, who has played various saxophones with his bands, plays tenor and a bit of soprano, and, on the quartet pieces, he moves in a Coltrane direction. "100 Summers" bears this out, since the rhythm section flows over him, Royston rolling and crashing with mallets in hand and Irabagon starting his solo with cells of notes that he shapes and reshapes before moving onto the next cluster.
"Cost of Modern Living" also gives Royston the chance to thunder away, especially when the group locks into a riff on the coda. Prior to that, Irabagon plays a solo that proves he isn't here to simply pay homage. He unleashes a series of complex lines that go into double-time and, as this is the second song of the album, keeps the bar high for the rest of the album.
Harrell, a straightahead but always dynamic player, proves to be a good frontline partner who is capable of thriving outside of his usual comfort zone. After an intriguing entrance on "Still Water" where his tone has a unique quiver to it, he digs into the song's changes with series of short but direct lines. The haunting "Obelisk" is marked by some dissonant intervals, to which Perdomo adds some great color, before the horns improvise collectively. "Eternal Springs" opens with one of the most muscular-sounding soprano saxophone solos to come down the pike in a long time. It sets the standard for the 6/8 groove that follows with Perdomo and Harrell delivering strong work.
Behind the Sky was inspired by the deaths of loved ones and mentors and when that is considered, a reflective quality can be noticed throughout the album, and not just when Irabagon and Perdomo duet on "Lost Ship at the Edge of the Sea." While musicians can't depend on tragedies to fuel their music, in this case, Irabagon seems to have taken a bad situation as a mandate to push himself to a higher level. So even if he does take cues from Coltrane, he's putting his unique stamp on it. This album features 11 tracks, a big number of a jazz album, and all of them should be heard.
A recent review of Behind the Sky in a big jazz publication put the album at the front of the section, but it didn't review it in tandem with Inaction is an Action. (It might have mentioned it in the article, but I try not to read reviews of things I've about to review.) Why? Because it's not an easy album to digest, to put it mildly. The term "extended technique" was invented for albums like this. Here, our maestro shows all the different ways to emit sounds with this pee-wee instrument. Putting lips on the mouthpiece and blowing is only the beginning.
The opening sound of the album comes closer to synthesizer noise, sort of a moan which may or may not be the end result of blowing into the bell, or blowing without a mouthpiece. This track, appropriately entitled "Revvvv," also creates the sound of flowing water courtesy of the rapid closing of the saxophone pads. As the album goes on, Irabagon evokes guttural stomach noises, bends and twists long tones and hits upper register squeals that make volume knob adjustments necessary. He also blows some intriguing melodies and even uses the acoustics of the Chicago's Lakeview Presbyterian Church (where it was recorded) to impact the sound, as he walks away from the microphone.
Yes, it's a challenging listen, not something you put on while doing the dishes. (More likely it's the thing to put on to clear the party of the last few stragglers.) But it's a strong work and a groundbreaking one, considering few saxophonists outside of Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Ravi Coltrane regularly blow the sopranino.
And this dual release helps to present a deep profile of Jon Irabagon.