It’s impossible to cover the current jazz scene and not soon encounter saxophone extraordinaire Jon Irabagon. You don’t have to look for him, he’ll just show up on various performances as a sideman, part of an ensemble or as a leader. He’ll play everything from avant-jazz to 80s pop; he’ll play alongside peers of his generation and masters of prior generations.
Well, last spring Irabagon did show up at the Jazzwerkstatt Peitz No. 50 Festival in Germany to play alongside older masters Barry Altschul (drums) and Mark Helias (bass), a power trio he led into a set of his own tunes released last month under his own Irabbagast label. It Takes All Kinds, as it’s called, is a dance around jazz of both the modern and the madness varieties. Put another way, it’s a Jon Irabagon record.
Last year, Altschul had a trio record, too. The 3Dom Factor also featured Irabagon, but with Joe Fonda on bass. That looseness while keeping it together carries over to the Helias-anchored group, as well as Altschul’s powerful support and Irabagon’s chameleon ways, and once again the sometimes alto saxophonist is on tenor. But this isn’t merely 3Dom Factor, Pt. 2, though they’d be nothing wrong with that. Helias brings it all together masterfully, and having a long history playing together with Altschul meant that Irabagon’s rhythm section is as solid state as a brick.
In an 800 year old medieval castle, the trio chased the goal of integrating composition and improvisation, and there was little doubt to anyone who understand their qualifications they were gonna achieve it, it was only a matter of how. “Wherewithal” is not just a testament to their gumption, it’s a song that puts that into action. Irabagon introduces a theme…a three-note quip, actually, and the song already begins changing directions. Altschul wastes no time pulling out the stops, in tune with Irabagon’s every whim, and pushing himself to the outer bounds of what’s possible on the drums as Irabagon does the same on the sax.
For an out-jazz guy, Irabagon has an good ear for a simple but catchy melodic pattern, like the one he introduces for “Vestiges.” Helias holds down that pattern while Irabagon embarks on flights of fancy and then Helias creates around that figure while staying on it at the same time. And then here comes Altschul, whose cadence keep the pattern going as he solos from him manipulating the timbre of his drums. “Quintessential Kitten” is one of Irabagon’s most stunning saxophone performances captured on record. He begins with sax soliloquy, sometimes swinging sweetly like Lester Young and other times getting a little abrasive. Later he gets going with a lung-taxing ramble of sixteenth notes that hardly seems humanly possible.
“Pause and Flip” is another one of those tunes where they can’t stay in one spot for long. When Altschul gets going with a fast Latin gallop, he’s playing like he has three arms. The drummer also star on “Unconditional,” where he begins the performance with a solo before it transitions with a Helias figure. Altschul finesses his tom toms like the seasoned pro that he is and Irabagon sax bounces over it like a trampoline. “Cutting Corners” is an abstract blues stroll with Irabagon playing puckishly, alternately chopping his notes and gliding them out. Helias’ bass feature is so in the pocket because he and Altschul are of the same mind.
Jon Irabagon grew up listening to Altschul and Helias records and now he’s playing alongside them as an equal — actually — their leader, in this instance. That the elders hadn’t lost any of their old spark helps to make It Takes All Kinds a cross-generational success.
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