Saturday, November 09, 2019

CD Review: Jon Irabagon - Invisible Horizon



Jon Irabagon
Invisible Guests
(Irabbagast) www,jonirabagon.com

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.

1 comment:

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