Jon Irabagon on Mahjong and Mezzo-Soprano Sax

The saxophonist explores two fascinating paths on his latest album

Jon Irabagon
Jon Irabagon (photo: Bryan Murray)

The Chinese game of mahjong may have been invented by Confucius more than 2,000 years ago or, possibly, sometime in the past few hundred years. What’s indisputable is that it found its way to America in the 20th century. Among those who played it avidly were the Chicago-based relatives of a young Filipino-American boy named Jon Irabagon. The sounds and sights of the players shuffling the colorful mahjong tiles made an indelible impression on the boy, who would later become a saxophonist and composer of considerable merit. Now 40, he’s devoted half of his new two-disc release, Invisible Horizon (the seventh album of his own music on his Irabbagast Records), to a suite largely inspired by the game. The other half is a different story altogether—sort of.

“Growing up, it was just there all the time,” Irabagon says about mahjong. “Whenever we’d go to parties and family gatherings, you’d hear those tiles clashing in the background. I said, ‘If Grandma’s going to play this every day, and my aunts are going to play this every weekend, I want to try to learn what’s going on so I can hang with them.’ It actually was more fun for me hearing the stories than sitting and playing the game.”

Such memories led Irabagon to research the history and superstitions behind mahjong, and to create “Invisible Guests,” the six-movement suite for string quartet and piano that makes up the bulk of his new album’s first half. The strings, performed by the Mivos Quartet, represent the four players in mahjong, but Irabagon needed to fill out the sound—and wanted to pay homage to the “invisible guests,” supernatural beings that are part of the game.

“Originally I was going to try to make it a string-quartet-and-saxophone piece,” he says. “And then I thought, ‘Why would the saxophone be there?’” He brought in pianist Matt Mitchell to collaborate with the quartet, and Irabagon himself sat out the suite; he appears only on two “vignettes” that bookend “Invisible Guests,” playing sopranino saxophone accompanied by the string quartet. “They don’t really come from the mahjong idea,” Irabagon says of the two short pieces. “But I’m glad to have been able to perform with the strings.”

The second disc, titled “Dark Horizon,” features Irabagon solo on a rare mezzo-soprano saxophone, recorded live inside the Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum in Oslo, Norway. Irabagon found the instrument on eBay and discovered that, because it was manufactured by Conn for only a year and a half in the late 1920s, virtually no repertoire existed for it. He set out to create some. “This instrument is crazy to me, so I said, ‘I’m going to home in on this thing. I’m gonna compose for the first few hours of my day and then jump into this instrument and try to discover what it has to say.’”

Ultimately, Irabagon wrote seven pieces for “Dark Horizon.” As on “Invisible Guests,” an intro and an outro buffets the main pieces. There is also one cover, which might seem completely out of whack on paper but makes perfect sense once Irabagon explains it: “Good Old Days,” the theme from The Little Rascals, the series of comedy shorts that began in the 1920s—the same period when the mezzo-soprano was manufactured—and later became a staple of kids’ TV. As it turns out, Irabagon learned, the original theme was recorded on … a mezzo-soprano saxophone.

Once the music was ready to go, Irabagon—who won the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition in 2008 and plays with the group Mostly Other People Do the Killing as well as several other outfits—went Oslo to record. “It was cold and damp in there,” he says of the mausoleum, which Vigeland, a Norwegian artist of the early 20th century, designed for himself. “It was pitch-black for a while. My friend who I brought to engineer was sitting in the back corner; I could only barely see the whites of his eyes. It was fascinating. There are paintings on the wall that have to do with Christianity and birth and sex, death and destruction. There were weird, powerful blasts coming out of skeletons’ heads, two skeletons having sex in the corner, dead babies. The mausoleum is one big block of concrete with no holes in it so it’s got natural reverb—all the sounds just bounce back at you.”

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At first, says Irabagon, he treated the mahjong work and the mezzo-soprano compositions as separate entities. Then it occurred to him that they had quite a bit in common: “The two things were growing simultaneously, compositionally and improvisationally, but they both have this form together. I wanted to flex my compositional chops; up to this point in my recording career there hasn’t been that much that’s been really focused on composition.”

Now, with Invisible Horizon behind him, he’s on to new things, including a third volume of I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues, an ongoing series featuring the saxophonist with guitarist Mick Barr and drummer Mike Pride. A second guitarist, Ava Mendoza, will join in this time. “Two electric guitars, drums, and sax—it’s going to be even more brutal and in-your-face and nuts than the first two volumes,” Irabagon says. 

Jeff Tamarkin

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Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.