CD REVIEWS: Jon Irabagon: Inaction is an Action and Behind the Sky

Jon Irabagon: Inaction is an Action; Behind the Sky.
(Irrabagast records 005; 004. CD reviews by Jon Turney)

Does the world need a recording of solo sopranino sax improvisations? It’ll be a niche interest, I imagine, but it’s quite fun discovering what the highest pitched voice in the saxophone family can do in the hands of an adventurous player.

Jon Irabagon, who is appearing these days in group contexts from Dave Douglas ensembles to the irreverently fertile Mostly Other People do the Killing, does the solo thing partly, one feels, for his own benefit. That is not to imply the result is self-indulgent, that too handy label for things one doesn’t quite appreciate oneself. It is a document of him exploring the possibilities of one of his instruments There are melodic lines on Inaction is an Action, at the beginning of some – but not all – the pieces. Also skirling, banshee wails, shreiks, wheezes, expiring whispers, whining infants of as yet unidentified species, and birdsong from unearthly forests. It probably isn’t an audio artefact many listeners will return to that often, unless they are trying to work out how a particular effect is achieved, but I found it pleasantly diverting. And if you want to hear a sopranino sax sound like a bunch of bullfrogs, this is definitely the album for you.

It appears on the saxophonist’s own label simultaneously with a release in more familiar, but no less ambitious, mode. The eleven pieces on Behind the Sky feature a quartet, with the wonderfully supple rhythm section of Venezeluan-born, New York resident Luis Perdomo on piano, Yasushi Nakamura on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. The overall theme is loss, mourned and then transcended, and by the end of this long set grief is certainly supplanted by celebration. It’s an impressively varied collection, in a straightahead style most readily labelled post-bop but often echoing jazz landmarks directly. The phenomenal Royston, who has an infallible knack of finding the right approach for each tune, makes some cuts here sound as if Art Blakey is in the driving seat, on others he roars along with the soloists like Elvin Jones in full flood. Irabagon and Nakamura match his turbulent flow, the former having at times something of the torrential exuberance of George Coleman in his pomp. Perdomo, who I’d not heard before, is a formidable presence throughout and his excursions with bass and drums would make a viable trio album by themselves.

Not a melancholic album, then: it is full of joy – although an elegiac duo for soprano sax and piano underlines the theme of life and loss. Three tracks featuring Tom Harrell gain emotional intensity from his always pungent trumpet and flugelhorn lines. The whole performance, contrasting with the more astringent explorations of Inaction emphasises how Irabagon remains satisfyingly hard to place, beyond the only category a modern player need aspire to, a man who is interesting whatever he does. Some remain unconvinced.One reviewer of this album has suggested that Irabagon the super-technician on sax lacks the ability to say anything profound, remarking that “some critics have been wooed by the superficial aspects of his style”. That’s a false dichotomy and, for me, a misjudgment of a fine recording.

Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol.  Twitter: @jonWturney 

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