CAN’T MISS DUO
Jon Irabagon – Rising Sun (Irabbagast – September 2022)
As he proved for the umpteenth time on last year’s solo saxophone Bird with Streams, Jon Irabagon is a dizzying, dazzling player whose imagination sees complexly structured bebop and boundary-less free playing as part of a whole. This new band went out on the road recently, and the recording sounds like a travelogue—a fleet adventure shared by four friends who know each other well. It’s not at all new to find musicians who can play masterful free-bop, funk, and intricately structured New Jazz. But Rising Sun is in masterpiece territory—a recording that demonstrates that lush beauty, breathtaking improvising, head-busting composition, soulful momentum, and sheer drama can coexist in our best music, and often on the same track.
Irabagon has created a set of melodies, motifs, and harmonic environments that let his tenor saxophone, Matt Mitchell’s piano, Dan Weiss’s drums, and Chris Lightcap’s bass interact with palpable joy and thrill. “Alliance”, for example, builds from a cracking drum introduction and soulful electric bass figure that invite Mitchell to run improvised post-bop lines in circles that finally coincide with the leader’s saxophone, reprising the speedy-simple bass lick in a call-and-response pattern. Here, on the opening “Sundance”, and on a fast, harmonically colorful version of Gillespie’s “Bebop”, Irabagon, Mitchell (and sometimes Lightcap) play blow-you-away-precise unison lines that should get anyone’s juices flowing. But just as often the point of Rising Sun is a wonderful mood. “Mammoth” lulls you into ease with a loping 12/8 pattern for Adam O’Farrill’s muted trumpet, then shifts into a polyrhythmic groove that hides the “one” as Mitchell’s improvises—only to have a new theme bring it all into focus for a drum solo undergirded by harmonized horns.
The title track, “Rising Sun”, includes guitarist Miles Okazaki and features Mitchell’s sonic manipulations on Fender Rhodes electric piano as well as acoustic piano, moving from propulsive groove playing to arhythmic passages of conversational freedom. It evokes the early fusion experiments of Miles Davis in the 1970s as well as the new-century daring post-modernism of musicians who can not only play every style but make them, remarkably, coherent and powerful. “Needles” features O’Farrill even more explicitly evoking Davis on the open horn, with Weiss sounding like Tony Williams and Mitchell deploying his Rhodes in Corea/Hancock mode. But within just a minute or two, the band veers beyond imitation, and Irabagon’s original theme comes out, more muscular than a Davis line, and the sound of the rhythm section sharpens. Mitchell grabs the spotlight with a mysterious, lighter-than-air solo that devolves and takes the track—and the album—to its end.
There should be more, you think. From this band and this conception? Yes, please.
Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Leo Genovese, Esperanza Spalding – Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival (Candid – September 2022)
This astonishing concert will be properly remembered as the last of Wayne Shorter‘s performing career, and it is a testament to his greatness that it finds him at the top of a mysterious, wondrous, profound game. Though Shorter was once a hard-blowing hard bop tenor saxophonist, at some point in the mid-1960s—when he was playing in the Miles Davis Quintet and recording brilliant albums for Blue Note Records, his composing took center stage and his playing style grew more mercurial, probing, and impressionistic. Shorter rarely performed as a completely spontaneous composer. But his music from 1970 onward—whether with the fusion band Weather Report, in his electric/acoustic albums of 1985-1995, in collaboration with others such as Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, and Joni Mitchell, or in his acoustic quartet of 2000-2018—combined harmonic innovation, sumptuous melody, and a probing style of improvisation that mixed enigma with power. All of those qualities were still on display in Detroit on 3 September 2017.
The concert was supposed to feature not only shorter but also bassist/vocalist esperanza spalding (who collaborated with Shorter on the opera Iphigenia), drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and pianist Geri Allen. Allen, however, died of cancer the preceding spring, so her spot was taken by the wonderful Argentinian pianist Leo Genovese. Much of the program is played in a luxurious, free-flowing manner that plays to everyone’s strengths in melody and texture, and every song but Allen’s classic “Drummer’s Song” includes spalding’s vocal. But you would be hard-pressed to hear the concert as one that “features” a singer.
Rather, the singing interacts with each performance as “just” another improvising voice, threading through and around Shorter’s saxophone, which sounds strong and vital on every track. “Drummer’s Song” and Shorter’s “Midnight in Carlotta’s Hair” are played as a continuous suite, with both halves getting into driving grooves. The soaring melody on the latter tune is played in octaves by a soprano saxophone and wordless vocal, with Shorter spinning out from the center in glorious, sure-toned embellishments. “Someplace Called ‘Where'” and “Endangered Species” are wilder and more exploratory, with the give-and-take among the rhythm section just as compelling as the voice/saxophone tapestry. A Milton Nascimento ballad is also lovely.
There are some great musicians who kept playing longer than their jobs might have preferred. But Wayne Shorter, in these Detroit concerts, was working with peers at the top of this game. Thank you, Wayne, for all the joy.