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A Star Risen
Jon Irabagon's Invisible Horizon

by Robin Kidson




Jon Irabagon


Jon Irabagon’s career has not been short of the glittering prizes. Born in Chicago in 1979 to parents from the Philippines, his first major triumph was winning the Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition in 2008. Since then, he has topped both the Rising Star Alto Saxophone and Rising Star Tenor Saxophone categories in the Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll. His Filipino heritage has led to a Mabuhay Award by the National Association of Filipino-Americans in 2012; and a Philippine Presidential Award in 2014. In 2012, he was New York City Jazz Record’s Musician of the Year.

Irabagon’s career has also not been short of variety. He is one of the most versatile and prolific performers on the international jazz scene, involved in a quite staggering array of projects. These include membership of the splendidly named Mostly Other People Do The Killing, regularly playing in ensembles led by Mary Halvorson and Dave Douglas, and working with some of the jazz greats like Wynton Marsalis and Evan Parker. In 2017, he supported British drummer Andrew Bain on his Whirlwind Records album, Embodied Hope, which was favourably reviewed on this website. He is currently touring in the US with Ralph Alessi.

There is an additional, more populist string to his bow: he was in the UK over the summer, for example, touring as part of Michael Bublé’s backing band; and has played with the likes of Billy Joel and Lou Reed.

Irabagon’s most interesting work, however, is as leader of his own ensembles or playing solo. He has a trio which includes Mark Helias and Barry Altschul; and a quartet with himself on saxophones, Luis Perdomo (piano), Yasushi Nakamura (bass), and Rudy Royston (drums). For a taste of what the quartet sounds like, here they are playing live in Buenos Aires in 2016.




This is only a selection of the work he has packed into his career. As if this was not enough, he also has his own record label, 'Irabbagast Records', on which he releases both some of his own work together with that of other US based musicians. One of the label’s outings, Behind The Sky, was reviewed on the Sandy Brown Jazz website – again, favourably - in 2015. On it, Irabagon and his quartet were joined by veteran trumpeter, Tom Harrell. You can hear one of the tracks from the album, The Cost of Modern Living:




Behind The Sky displayed Irabagon’s more lyrical and relatively conventional voice. But he has a whole range of other voices including an innovative free jazz sound which is unlike anything else around in today’s jazz. In 2015, he released a solo record on Irabbagast called Inaction is an Action on which he played sopranino saxophone in a most adventurous and interesting style all his own. Here is Hang Out A Shingle from that album:




And now we have Invisible Horizon, a double album recently released on Irabbagast. The main focus of the first part of the album is a six-Jon Irabagon Invisible Horizonmovement suite for piano and string quartet called Invisible Guests. Composed by Jon Irabagon, it features Matt Mitchell (piano) together with the Mivos Quartet - Olivia de Prato and Lauren Cauley Kalal (violins), Victor Lowrie Tafoya (viola) and Mariel Roberts (cello). The suite is based around the ancient oriental game, mahjong, which Irabagon learned to play as a child growing up in a Filipino community in Chicago. Before writing the suite, he made a video recording of an actual mahjong game he played with his family. “Then,” he says, “while writing, I paid special attention to surprising turns, unexpected moves, and when specific tiles were drawn or thrown. Certain themes in the suite represent musical depictions of completed hands; others are reappearing leitmotifs which describe the apparitions of fate and blessings which conspicuously changed the direction of the game”.

The four members of the string quartet represent the game’s players. The piano represents luck and ill-will – “it twists, turns and whirls through the players’ moves, sometimes helping but more often hindering them”. The movements of the suite all have names like Heaven’s Blessing or The Dreamer  which “evoke the traditional superstitious concepts of karma and virtue so vital to winning”. The final movement, Catching the Fish at the Bottom of the River, is a name given to a particular way of finishing a game.

The mahjong theme provides an intriguing structure for the suite. Of course, one does not have to know all the background context to appreciate the considerable virtues of the music. Much of it is straight ahead contemporary classical with touches of Bartok and Piazzolla tango. The music travels through various moods: wistful, tentative, eerie, jagged, intense, frantic…. There is a jazz feel at times with sections where the musicians are allowed to improvise. This often leads to passages of discordance where instruments are banged and scraped and general chaos ensues. This may not be to everyone’s taste but it never feels out of context and is integrated into the whole in an effective and interesting way.

All in all, Invisible Guests is an impressive piece of work and adds yet another string – contemporary classical music composer - to Jon Irabagon’s already crowded bow.

Invisible Guests is bookended by two tracks. The first is Vignette for Mouthpieceless Sopranino Saxophone and String Quartet. The second is the same vignette but with the mouthpiece in place. Irabagon says enigmatically that the two pieces have a sort of relationship to Invisible Guests: “The sopranino has its say as overseer, beyond divine will and the four human adversaries”. He conjures up all sorts of sounds from the sopranino – whispers, the creaking of a gate, the wind, heavy breathing, the sound the stylus makes when a vinyl record has finished but the turntable is still spinning….. and so on. It is free playing at the very limit but it is strangely beguiling and compelling. And never boring. Again, the Mivos Quartet give enthusiastic support.

The second record of the double album is called Dark Horizon: Live from the Mausoleum. Jon Irabagon plays solo on the very rare Emanuel Vigelund Mausoleummezzo-soprano saxophone. This was an instrument made by the Conn company in the late 1920s. It never caught on and only a few survive, one of which has come into Irabagon’s possession.

Dark Horizon was recorded in August 2017 at the Emanuel Vigelund Mausoleum in Oslo, Norway. Vigelund (1875-1948) was a Norwegian artist who built the Mausoleum to house some of his paintings and sculptures – and to be the final resting place for his ashes which are contained in an urn over the entrance door. The building has no windows and therefore little light; and the entrance door is so small and low that you have to bend to get into the place. These features have resulted in a very special sonic space with what Irabagon calls “a pervasive and fascinating thirteen-second reverb, with the echo maxing out at over eighteen seconds at lower frequencies”. Sandy Brown with his acoustic engineer hat on would have been entranced by the place.

All eight tracks bar one on Dark Horizon are Irabagon’s own compositions. The first track is an opening overture which shows off the Mausoleum’s echo in all its glory. Irabagon plays a wistful, haunting theme. The effect is strongly reminiscent of Jan Garbarek’s work, particularly what he did with the Hilliard Ensemble. However, the comparison quickly disappears as Irabagon begins to strain his instrument, forcing it into distortion and discordance whilst still just about hanging on to the tune. The high notes sometimes seem to disappear into the stratosphere. The saxophone revels in the echo and Irabagon skillfully uses that echo almost as another instrument. When the notes come thick and fast, they are played against the echo of previous notes so there is a continuous sound of echo on echo on echo…a whole orchestra of echoes. The effect is mesmerising.

On many of the tracks, Irabagon goes beyond music in any conventional sense and into the realms of pure sound. On Forest and Field, for example, the sounds that Irabagon conjures out of his horn include: a creaking door (spooky), knocks, whales in the ocean, the bleatings of small animals, sucks, kisses, and bird song. The whole sounds at times like a BBC sound effects album. If that sounds frivolous, then it is The Little Rascalsnot meant to be. Irabagon’s intentions are wholly serious and the overall effect is often quite stunning and completely absorbing.

Eternal Rest is another track which uses different sounds in an effective and original way. There are more creaks and squeaks, whispers, and underwater whale sounds. Gradually, with imaginative use of the echoes, a continuous sound of waves and wind is set up. With this sort of music (and it is music), you have to go with it, surrender to it and rid yourself of any previous conceptions of what music might be. And it’s not the sort of music you might hear in a Michael Bublé concert.

The one track not written by Irabagon is a rendering of Good Old Days by Leroy Shield. This was used as a theme tune for the 1950s American television show, The Little Rascals, where it was played on a mezzo soprano saxophone. Irabagon begins by playing the theme fairly conventionally but then gradually introduces improvisation and distortion, bouncing off the echo. The CD ends with a reprise of the opening track which gradually builds to a long sustained note that stops and all we are left with is that long echo. Then silence, and a fitting dramatic end to one of the most compelling records I’ve heard in a long time.

Free jazz can often be a bit of a dog’s breakfast resulting in chaotic, undifferentiated noise. Whilst Jon Irabagon’s free playing doesn’t always come off, it usually delivers something which catches the ear, engages the brain and enthralls the soul. Its adventurousness is to be applauded. And it is never ever boring. Despite all his awards, versatility and virtuosity, he is not as well known, even in the jazz world, as one might expect. For his free jazz work alone, I think he is easily the equal of the likes of John Zorn, Anthony Braxton or Evan Parker. Invisible Horizon shows Jon Irabagon at the height of his powers and marks his arrival not as a rising star but a fully fledged, fully risen one.

Click here for details of how to get hold of Invisible Horizon and to sample the tracks. Click here for more about Jon Irabagon.


Jon Irabagon




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Shai Maestro - The Dream Thief
Keith Jarrett - After The Fall
Video Juke Box
Jazz As Art

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