November 2, 2019
Irabbagast Records 014/015
Traditional album nomenclature would probably have titled this two-CD sets, The Two sides of Jon Irabagon, But even though the discs are more-or-less split between demonstrations of his composing and playing skill, the American saxophonist’s mature concepts are more open and refined than what would usually be defined by those hoary designations.
For a start while Irabagon long-ago proved his ability to easily fit into contemporary modern situations with ensembles such as Mostly Other People Do the Killing and Dave Douglas’ band, both discs are divorced from that particular category. The Dark Horizon CD for instance is an eight track reed exploration, dedicated to singular, jagged overblowing and related extended techniques with a rare saxophone. Using a recording space with a unique 13-second delay, Irabagon ups the originality factor here by improvising ideas using the on the spottily manufactured and preserved mezzo soprano saxophone. Two tracks which open and close Invisible Guests, the other CD, deviate only slightly from this concept. Although playing a conventional sopranino, rather than the mezzo soprano, these vignettes feature the saxophonist exploring the instrument’s extended limits, playing with a mouthpiece on one track and without one on the other. Backing comes from the Mivos Quartet of Olivia de Prato and Lauren Cauley Kala’s violins, Victor Lowrie Tafoya’s viola and Mariel Roberts’ cello.
If those experiments aren’t unique enough, then consider that Irabagon doesn’t play at all on the six-movement Invisible Guests suite, which make up the rest of the disc. Instead the quasi-Impressionist/quasi-Expressionist themes are only interpreted by the string quartet and pianist Matt Mitchell, like Irabagon, another polystylistic performer.
In this case the quartet play an alternating jittery and smooth role, sometimes swelling with romantic glissandi and during other sequences following the contours of Mitchell’s densely voiced playing with swift spiccato vibrations. Stylistically moving from measured moderato voicing to double-timed runs during the suite’s development, the pianist often piles up descriptive cadences. At junctures he faces contrasting motifs from all the strings or alternately brief interjections from one violinist or the cellist. Reaching a primary climax of accelerating tension via thickened string vibrations on “Movement 4: Red Four”, Mitchell’s high frequency cadenzas attain similar intensity as they slip through the mass of multuphonic string patterns, suggesting the strategies of mah-jong players who the suite characterizes in music. Oddly enough, before the finale on “Movement 6: Catching the Fish at the Bottom Of the River” that consists of tough string swabbing plus low-pitched piano patterning, the five players reveal advanced variants of more moderated lines including waltz and tango suggestions and sweeping glissandi that aim towards quasi-middle-of-the-road territory. Still a brief coda of double-stopping strings and bravura key coloration confirms the gnarled contours of Irabagon’s composition.
The abject modernity of his vision is confirmed in Irabagon’s saxophone playing as well. On the sopranino vignettes, removing the mouthpiece doesn’t really make the exposition any more atonal. The same mixture of sweet and sour vibrations is highlighted. Watery split tones, stark overblowing and wolf-like howls are more obvious when framed by winnowing strings on “Vignette for Mouthpieceless Sopranino Saxophone and String Quartet” than when the mouthpiece is attached. However Irabagon subsequently showcases enough sharp siren-like cries and rugged multiphonics to make his relaxation into melody as unexpected on the second track as on the first piece.
Testing out unaccompanied mezzo soprano saxophone textures throughout the other eight tracks sometimes seems more experiment than expression, As reed-biting phrasing encompasses staccato skyscraping as well as nephritic pushes Irabagon authoritatively cuts through concentrated tone curtains to create playful often melodic allusions. Flutter tonguing, air forced through pursed lips, chirping and tongue-slapping break up the narratives which also feature un-segmented circular breathing. Wrapping up the exercise on “Dark Horizon (exit bow)” with cathedral-shaped growling whole notes that are pushed to higher and higher pitches; he uses pressurized vibrations to squeeze out a straight-ahead summation with affiliated echoes. Before that “Holy Smoke” is dedicated to gurgled and growling triple tongued passion and “Half a World Away” to stretching out reed doits and spetrofluctuation in various permutations, confirming the benefits and drawbacks of the unusual horn.
Confident and creative in both roles here, the extent of Irabagon musical horizon appears not invisible, but nearly limitless,
Track Listing: CD1 Invisible Guests: 1. Vignette for Mouthpieceless Sopranino Saxophone and String Quartet Invisible Guests Suite: 2. Movement 1: West Wing 3. Movement 2: Heaven’s Blessing 4. Movement 3: Benevolence, Sincerity and Devoutness 5. Movement 4: Red Four 6. Movement 5: The Dreamer 7. Movement 6: Catching the Fish at the Bottom of the River 8. Vignette for Sopranino Saxophone and String Quartet; CD2: 1. Dark Horizon: Live From the Mausoleum: 1. Dark Horizon (entrance) 2. Dragonwort 3. Forest & Field 4, Holy Smoke 5. Good Old Days (Theme from the Little Rascals) 6.Eternal Rest 7. Half a World Away 8. Dark Horizon (exit bow)
Personnel: Jon Irabagon (sopranino saxophone [CD1] or mezzo-soprano saxophone [CD1]); Matt Mitchell (piano); Mivos Quartet: Olivia de Prato and Lauren Cauley Kalal (violins); Victor Lowrie Tafoya (viola) and Mariel Roberts (cello)