There is no one in jazz like Jon Irabagon. He has mastered at least six reed instruments, and he plays them in so many styles you might think he suffers from dissociative identity disorder. In fact, all of his choices are deliberate. He is at home in left-of-center ensembles both intellectual (the Mary Halvorson Quintet) and visceral (Barry Altschul’s 3dom Factor). In Mostly Other People Do the Killing, he is often hilarious, a manic saxophone virtuoso, deeply embedded in the absurdist culture of that band. In his own trio with guitarist Mick Barr and drummer Mike Pride, he can raise more pandemonium than Albert Ayler. But he is also an essential member of a centrist A-list band, the Dave Douglas Quintet. With Douglas, Irabagon behaves himself and performs sincere jazz versions of folk songs and hymns, among other music.
Two new albums on his own label, Irabbagast, occupy opposite extremes of his vast stylistic spectrum. Behind the Sky is as straight-ahead as anything Irabagon has ever recorded, a quartet session with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Rudy Royston. Trumpeter Tom Harrell joins on three tunes. It is a stunning record. Inaction Is an Action is a solo sopranino album, perhaps the first and last in the history of jazz. It is a stunning, unlistenable record.
Behind the Sky has a theme: grieving and acceptance. Irabagon recently lost several loved ones and mentors in a short period of time. His vivid original music rarely sounds sad or even contemplative. There are no dirges here. Songs like “100 Summers” and “One Wish” are celebrations of spirits still present in Irabagon’s life. Softer pieces, like “Obelisk” and “Music Box Song,” are still fervent.
Irabagon’s most striking quality, even more than his lethal chops, even more than his abundant supply of surprising ideas, is his passion. Whatever the context, he always spills his guts. On “Sprites” (soprano saxophone) and “Mr. Dazzler” (tenor), he plays so hard he pins you back in your chair. And the “straight-ahead” description above is relative. His zeal to communicate always carries him to the edge, where he flirts with chaos before retreating. As for Harrell, his proprietary lyricism runs deep on this record, especially on “Still Water.” But in Irabagon’s presence he becomes an edgier, more elliptical version of himself. Perdomo is just right for Irabagon, a confrontational accompanist and inexorable soloist. They are alone together on “Lost Ship at the Edge of the Sea.” It is as inward as these two get, yet tense with forces held barely in check.
Irabagon will try anything. His feverish, fearless imagination has led him to investigate the expressive possibilities of solo sopranino saxophone. In press notes he says that he has spent “countless hours in a practice room breaking the ‘nino’ down and experimenting with anything that came to mind.” As if a solo sopranino album weren’t weird enough, Inaction Is an Action contains slap tonguing, multiphonics, blowing into the bell of the horn and playing sans reed and mouthpiece. The tracks have names but they are not music. They are varieties of noise, so ugly they are almost sublime. It is somehow thrilling that an artist can release one of the best and one of the worst albums of the year on the same day.