As a committed fan of music that “made up in soul what it lacked in studiousness” from early on, the application of advanced technique has always been a complicated matter for me as a listener. Coming from punk rock to jazz and contemporary music, I always liked things that were a bit rough-hewn. Of course, as a somewhat inexperienced listener, the level of technique required to make music that often sounded “rough” or “far out” was probably somewhat beyond me — Albert Ayler didn’t just pick up a tenor saxophone one day and start playing “Ghosts.”
I hope I’m not misconstruing a statement that the late trumpeter/composer/polymath Bill Dixon said in a 2008 conversation, which boiled down to the fact that musicians today have so much more available to them in terms of technique, knowledge, and access that something like the music of Albert Ayler or John Coltrane could not happen now. Or, to invert that idea, musicians in the 1960s and 70s (as any other decade) worked with what they had and, considering the paucity of certain resources, did a hell of a lot. Naturally, that makes for a complex dynamic — improvising musicians know a ton, have the work of their forebears available for study, and the level of precision is pretty much off the charts. Yet one is unfortunately going to be measured against people like Coltrane, Ayler, Dixon, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, or whomever — and that’s only if one is “good” or even “excellent.” The stakes are high.
Tenor/alto saxophonist and composer Jon Irabagon and his work present an interesting and often confounding situation. Winner of the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition in 2008, his creativity and instrumental command could easily have earned him a place within the pantheon of modern mainstream jazz musicians — and in that coterie, he would have been one of the more interesting players to have come along in a while. Indeed, the result of the Monk prize was The Observer, a disc on Concord Jazz with the lineup of trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianists Kenny Barron and Bertha Hope, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Victor Lewis — all mainstream instrumentalists par excellence (Barron and Hope are national treasures). But he’s gained far more notoriety for his work in groups like bassist Moppa Elliott’s Mostly Other People Do The Killing (with drummer Kevin Shea and trumpeter Peter Evans) and sideman appearances with guitarist-composer Mary Halvorson, drummer Mike Pride’s From Bacteria to Boys, and Talibam!, all decidedly avant-garde or just plain “weird” outfits.
The Chicago-raised Irabagon’s own ensembles have featured a pretty staggering array of contemporary improvisers, including Mike Pride, bassist Eivind Opsvik, pianist Kris Davis, trumpeter Russ Johnson, and veteran drummer Barry Altschul (Circle; BassDrumBone; Sam Rivers; Paul Bley). One doesn’t expect a highly regarded graduate of university jazz programs and saxophone competition winner to show up for a weeknight avant-garde gig at now-defunct Brooklyn staple Zebulon, but that’s where Irabagon has taken his music. At the close of 2012, he instituted his own label, Irabbagast Records, to release the latest recordings of his Outright quintet (Unhinged) and I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues, a duo with Pride that has been expanded to include brutal-prog guitarist Mick Barr (Appalachian Haze). These records are meant to be taken together, of a piece or as two sides of Irabagon’s polyhedral coin. The current incarnation of Outright features trumpeter Ralph Alessi, pianist/keyboardist Jacob Sacks, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Tom Rainey — entirely different personnel-wise from Outright (Innova, 2008). As with the previous disc, certain tracks are fleshed out with programming, auxiliary percussion, and guitar. On “Silent Smile,” a 29-piece orchestra is added (consisting of a who’s who of the New York avant-garde, though specific players’ voices are nearly impossible to pinpoint).
Unhinged begins with the jaunty overture of “Camp Douglas,” which appears a few times in short snippets throughout the disc and is ostensibly a reference to the saxophonist’s time with trumpeter Dave Douglas. A favorite from Outright returns in “Charles Barkley,” which follows a gracefully filmic introduction with an unaccompanied minute-long tenor solo. Full of gargles, harmonic burrs, and clambering atonal knots, it’s a clear example of technical mastery of the saxophone within a certain set of (vanguard) parameters, limned with tension and dexterity. The full ensemble enters with a delicate stomp, pirouetting into keening rubato passages. Alessi is next out of the gate with a gorgeously crumpled and incisive solo, reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler and Hugh Steinmetz in his use of dynamics and obliquely collapsed, insular phrases, the rhythm section charging and roiling underneath. The quintet is well orchestrated, shifting on a moment’s notice between free passages, bop, near ragtime, and post-tonal classicism. Navigating those uneven waters is no easy feat, but the music is executed in a way that one isn’t necessarily beaten over the head with technique. After all, Outright is enough of a band that communication is natural and any deconstructive logic applied feels as though it’s been done evenly.
“Lola Pastillas” is a loose Latin piece — and by loose, it’s rife with agitated parallelism, Hébert holding down a semblance of beat as Sacks and Irabagon clamber and dive while Rainey and Pride clatter and subsume. Alessi is cutting with pensive blats and wispy screams as the ensemble forms a meaty pile underneath, bookended by slick Afro-Cuban notated sections. “Silent Smile” opens with throaty pizzicato bass, buzzing string thwacks palpable against a winking and saccharine, encroaching mass of sound. In this tune, Irabagon plays with the duality of schmaltz and towering phrasal superimposition, combining a pop-jazz orchestra with, say, Sam Rivers’ Crystals (Impulse, 1974) or Dave Burrell’s “Peace” (Echo, BYG, 1969). It’s somewhat garish and unsettling, and that’s probably the point, yet through it all, the quintet maintains their steadfast commitment to brightness and muscularity, which is an important constant. “Kremzeek!” follows with Sacks on Rhodes, electric harpsichord, and clavinet; Hébert on electric bass; and Glenn Alexander (Mahavishnu Project) added on guitar. Unsurprisingly, they reference Pat Metheny-Lyle Mays, Return to Forever, or a number of crisp early jazz-rock ensembles — cracking rhythm, glorious electrified unison and sections of gutsy-but-bright shredding. Rainey’s prehistory as a rock drummer is an asset here, giving the music a robust shove, and the arrangements are taut and infectious. “Kremzeek!” is maybe the least original piece here, but it is also an admirably executed slice of jazz-rock fusion that’s hard to argue with.
The group’s version of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” (minus Alessi) has more in common with post-Coltrane balladic dirges à la Gato Barbieri and Lonnie Liston Smith (tenor and piano, respectively) than Desmond and Dave Brubeck. With the addition of Eivind Opsvik on a second contrabass, they are a ghostly and texturally pliable unit, basses sawing and tugging, surrounded by Sacks’ lush arpeggios and Rainey’s cymbal splash. Irabagon and Outright interpret 5/4 in ways that are divergent — terse filaments in a delicate tempo section (Opsvik’s needling bow reminiscent of the late Art Davis’ work) or wrenching and muscular paeans to the church of John Coltrane. Admittedly, seeing the group perform the piece on the night of Brubeck’s passing gave it an added, singular weight. Not a group to leave listeners with programmatic heartache, Outright closes with “Parker Posey,” rattling Mingus-like honky-tonk out-jazz that’s almost theatrical, spreading into bubbling free-time that encompasses steely, heel-digging tenor, whinnying brass dives and Sacks’ voluminous encompassing of tradition and the vanguard.
Much has been made of the idea that Outright and Irabagon are asking “which saxophonist-composer are you going to get?” Sure, there are diverse strains here — post-bop, free jazz, strange orchestral music, Latin jazz, and the closest signifiers of 1965 Coltrane and 1972 fusion that I’ve heard on a “new” record. But it seems pretty clear that there is a focus to this music, and that despite a number of different tacks, the music does have an overarching vision, narrative, and conviction that ensure Unhinged remains far from being a pastiche or a grab-bag. Furthermore, Irabagon has chosen compadres who, like himself, are direct and open players — technical aces, sure, but with an extraordinary amount of individualism that makes one wonder what they’ll sound like in 20 or 30 years.
The trio I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues presents an altogether different approach and set of issues from Outright. Across one 47-minute track, Irabagon, Mike Pride, and Mick Barr let fly with what is basically an onslaught of sound, meshing discrete and particular phrases into skittering and top-heavy mass. The addition of Barr to the saxophone-percussion duo that recorded eponymously for Loyal in 2009 was actually the result of a couple of things — Pride’s interest in playing with Barr and a suggestion by critic Hank Shteamer that the duo’s initial disc had more in common with Barr’s Orthrelm than with other tenor and drum duets (Coltrane’s Interstellar Space; Rashied Ali and Frank Lowe’s Duo Exchange, etc.).
There’s a fascinating triangulation of energy between these players. The relationship with Barr Shea Dahl (ugExplode, 2012), Pulverize the Sound (with Pride, Tim Dahl and Peter Evans), or some of Weasel Walter’s music is pretty clear in terms of an outpouring of information. But what’s interesting is that in this dense field of sonic information, there is a lot of nuance that only prolonged exposure will bear out. Barr is the fulcrum here, working in flinty scales that occupy relatively narrow and high-pitched parameters (or seem to), while Irabagon builds into throaty yelps and chordal/scalar recombinations that evince a thoughtful and inspired liftoff from Wayne Shorter, Pharoah Sanders, and Evan Parker. Far from being strangled ecstasy, his path on the tenor is complex but forthright, quizzical yet breathtaking in its originality, and an organic foil for Barr’s tight cataclysm. Throughout the course of “Appalachian Haze,” Pride lays down an extraordinary array of percussive inventions, sometimes in concert with Barr and Irabagon, other instances at a cool distance — shimmering martial madness, shuffling lackadaisical backbeats, goading triplets, cottony swing or a panoply of accents (this may be some of the best Mike Pride on record).
The barraging aspect is rarely absent, though, and in terms of “technicality,” until one gets used to it, it’s like overfilling one’s plate at the Indian buffet. There is a slight let up around the 35-minute mark, which is curious — Barr’s phrases don’t really change in terms of their scope and application, but he eases up on the gas in such a way as to create a surprising amount of space, wherein his phrase clusters act as lacy filigree to Irabagon’s stark breathiness. It’s a small area of major differentiation that has great effect. In a sense, though none of these players have lived the life of someone like John Coltrane, the music that results from I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues is a modern analog to the purifying torrents that Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, and McCoy Tyner unleashed in the mid-1960s. There is no possibility for a “contemporary Coltrane,” but music like that of John Irabagon and his peers is singular and defiant enough that it should fulfill and eradicate any need.