Saturday, November 09, 2019

CD Review: Jon Irabagon - Invisible Horizon

Jon Irabagon
Invisible Horizon
(Irabbagast) www,

Sometimes it's hard to tell if Jon Irabagon is simply one of the most creative minds in modern music or if he's a nut with no filter. Maybe he's both. To wit - As the saxophonist of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, he took part in - among other things - the group's note-for-note version of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. (Irabagon played the roles of both Trane and Cannonball.) But he also released a fine, straightahead album on Concord. On a different album, Unhinged, he invited 28 musicians to walk all over his slow jam "Silent Smile," which didn't deter from the beauty of the piece as it added a dose of musical surrealism.

While the list of accomplishments and dichotomies could go on and on, the final one that should be mentioned is Inaction is an Action, an album of solo sopranino sax pieces that explores nearly all sonic possibilities on the tiny horn. It was extended technique par excellence, albeit something one might not pull off the shelf on a regular basis.

Invisible Guests consists of two vastly different discs but both have a similar thread running through them. Both sessions are guided and inspired by superstitions, specters and spirits. The title piece takes up the majority of Disc One, in a recital inspired by Mahjong, a game which was played in Flipino community gatherings which Irabagon's family attended when he was a child. The saxophonist does not play in the six-part suite. The Mivos Quartet - two violinists, a violist and cellist - assume the role of the Mahjong players and pianist Matt Mitchell joins them, acting much like Luck and Ill Will factor in the game, as Irabagon explains.

What this means musically is the strings often seem to chatter with one another, one starting a line that gets echoed by each player, while Mitchell hammers chords beneath them. Sometimes tranquility is undermined by minor string harmonies. Tempos often accelerate, shifting into a tango rhythm in one section. When Mitchell's piano evokes a billowing wind storm, it feels like he's knocking the players' Mahjong tiles over.

After Irabagon explains the game and the performance in the liner notes, he casually says the music can be heard without "the contextual clothing." It does hold up on its own, avoiding the pitfall of some avant classical string works, which can sound rigid and shrill. But his notes help the true goal of the piece to emerge.

Before and after the suite, Irabagon performs with Mivos on sopranino saxophone. The opening piece forgoes the instrument's mouthpiece, allowing Irabagon to make all sorts of percussive, guttural and even recorder-like sounds on the instrument, while the quartet surges forward. The outro restores the mouthpiece for a completely different, richer performance.

For Dark Horizon, Disk Two of the set, Irabagon presents a extremely rare instrument in an unlikely performance space. The Conn saxophone created a mezzo-soprano saxophone (pitched in F) during the 1920s. With the Great Depression around the corner and no repertoire for the mutant horn, it went away as quickly as it arrived. Armed with one of the few of the dozen that weren't scrapped, Irabagon took it into Tomba Emmanuelle, a mausoleum in Oslo, Norway with a 13-second natural reverb. There he performed some rich melodies that beautifully waft into the air ("Dark Horizon," "Holy Smoke"), checks out how the mezzo-soprano responds to extended technique ("Eternal Rest") and makes some really annoying sounds ("Forest and Field"). The fascination lies in the way natural saxophone tones seem to waft in the background while Irabagon is blowing static on the horn. The spirits were speaking.

In the middle of it all, he peels off the least expected interpretation of such a set - "Good Old Days," which served as the recurring theme for the Little Rascals. Even if he comes up with some batshit ideas, this track alone proves that Irabagon's work still falls on the side of heavily creative.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Looking Back at the 49th Pitt Jazz Seminar

Nicole Mitchell said, during the summer, that the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert would be shaken up this year. After Saturday night's performance at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, one might say she understated things. The flutist, who now heads the Jazz Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh, gave a shout-out to the late Dr. Nathan Davis, who began the musical tradition in 1970. But from there, she took things in a direction that was miles from the blowing sessions and myriad soloists that was a standard fare.

The evening featured one group with Mitchell on flutes and Moog, Jason Moran on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, Marcus Gilmore on drums and sampler, Roscoe Mitchell on soprano and sopranino saxophones and percussion and Moor Mother doing spoken word. Everyone stayed on stage during the whole show, which lasted just over 90 minutes. Although the performance was bookended by pieces that had a definite groove to them, the group itself took sometime to really get into their own groove for the evening. In a way, that feeling seemed to click after Roscoe Mitchell unleashed some vicious call to arms on his soprano sax.

The theme of the evening was "At the Edge of Beauty: Performing Creative Resistance." Mitchell kicked off the set with "Jumping in the Sugar Bowl," a tune by Amina Claudine Myers, the pianist/organist who had performed the previous evening and also received an Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award from Pitt at the start of the concert.  The spry piece, with Mitchell and Moor Mother singing, got the evening off to a festive start. From there, things moved into freer territory. Gilmore and Mitchell engaged in a dialogue of press rolls and flute wails. Mitchell switched to bass flute for added intensity.

After a while it felt like Gilmore was doing most of the heavy lifting during the night, coaxing and directing from his kit. Roscoe Mitchell blew a variety of intense sounds on his horns, which were occasionally hard to hear fully when he sitting away from his microphone. He switched to percussion regularly. At the other end of the stage, Jason Moran sat listening intently, almost as often as he played. Rufus Reid also showed restrain, resting when he wasn't bowing a foundation.

Moor Mother, on the other hand, participated perhaps a little too much when it might have been better to give these A-list musicians some room. A dynamic performer and clearly a strong writer, her work often consisted of a litany of phrases ("The feeling....the gathering...the way to it..") repeated with no conclusion or one that lost listeners by the time it arrived. In a piece dedicated to Toni Morrison, she kept repeating the statement "I remember" over and over and over.

Roscoe Mitchell put much effort into his sound production, gesticulating with saxophones, all the while blowing some otherworldly sounds. In a piece that began with Nicole Mitchell playing Moog synthesizer (or sampler), the elder Mitchell unleashed a pack of barbed squonks, eventually cuing in the rhythm section one by one. Reid bowed a pedal point, sounding more like the Necks' Lloyd Swanton than the decorated jazz veteran that he is. Nearly 70 minutes into the performance, Mitchell's wake up call got the group on the same page, though Moor Mother still could have given the group a little more space.

Ten minutes later, as that piece concluded, the first two rows in the center section had enough and left. A friend sitting in one of the upper balconies also saw several people depart throughout the evening. A couple seated behind had no qualms with talking the whole night throughout the set. I can only imagine how many people were thinking, "That's not jazz." Oh well.

But the ones that stayed showed their appreciation by giving the group a standing ovation. Afterwards, I heard a mix of opinions. "Sometimes you need to keep your mind open while listening." "That was rough." One friend greeted me with a scream of joy and enthusiasm, in large part because the concert looked toward the future rather than simply reveling in the past.  Sure it was a little dicey at times, and some players could have flexed their personalities a little more. But it was great to see Mitchell begin her time in Pittsburgh with such a bold move.

Speaking of bold, Amina Claudine Myers kicked off the concert weekend the night before with a solo set at Bellefield Hall, just around the corner from the Carnegie Music Hall. She began on piano, singing and playing "Down On Me," a blues that might - for better or worse- be best known for the version that Janis Joplin adapted when she was in Big Brother and the Holding Company. Myers delivered it much like Nina Simone might have done, with a rich, emotional voice and style that made musical categorization useless. This delivery set the standard for what followed.

The first half of the set featured Myers playing rippling piano chords, swaying back and forth on the bench, singing in tongues, playing a two-chord riff in the left hand while her right moved over the keys. Then she sat down at the B3 organ, firing up the Leslie speaker. From my seat, I could see the horn in the cabinet rotating and could see Myers' left foot working the bass pedals. If she had stopped after the first organ chord, I would have been satiated. But she went on to play some blues, the dark broken-hearted classic "Angel Eyes" and the original "Have Mercy Upon Us." The latter included some outer space melodies in her right hand, while the bass pedals held it together.

All this for $10. Ten freaking dollars. When was the last time you had that much excitement for $10?

On Saturday morning, I also attended the free seminars of Jason Moran and Roscoe Mitchell. While Mitchell talked at length about the history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Moran talked about his discovery of Thelonious Monk and how it affected his young, piano-playing mind.

Focusing on Monk's 1959 Town Hall Concert, the real surprises were the excerpts Moran played of Monk's rehearsals at W. Eugene Smith's loft where, though the sound quality was rough, we got to hear the pianist talking with arranger Hall Overton about the music Plus, when Moran played the section of "Little Rootie Tootie" where the Orchestra plays Monk's transcribed piano solo, Moran leaned over the piano onstage and joined in. If that wasn't worth getting out of bed early on a Saturday morning, nothing is.