The pandemic was hell for performers of all stripes, not the least for improvising instrumentalists. Massive stars like Taylor Swift still exist as recording artists, selling their music in recorded form—even if they don’t really sell “albums” anymore.
For most musicians—and indeed about 99% of jazz musicians—all income is from live performance. Like theater actors or ballet dancers, the total shutdown of ticket-selling live venues was a financial blackout. Some well-known jazz clubs got into the streaming business, of course, preserving the opportunity for artists to work “in the moment” for listeners. Individual musicians streamed on social media at the same time every week—with pianist Dan Tepfer doing online duets with other players, for example, and singer/guitarist John Pizzarelli hosting what amounted to a family hour each week, with his wife just off-camera chatting with him and a group of fans putting in requests for favorite old tunes.
However, a good number of musicians were just plain alone and isolated, like so many of us. There was woodshedding and introspection. And the results, emerging recently in recordings that are artistically riveting, if not commercially promising, may never have existed were it not for the pandemic.
Three prominent saxophonists emerged in the last few months with unaccompanied solo recordings: J.D. Allen, Jon Irabagon, and Jaleel Shaw. Two are relatively traditional in tone but still fascinating as documentations of the melodic state of the saxophone’s art. The third, by Irabagon, is a flabbergasting meditation of the bebop master Charlie Parker, whose centennial sadly coincided with our year of performance blackout.
Jaleel Shaw Plays with a Light Mournfulness: Echoes
Jaleel Shaw’s Echoes is sprightly and sad, weighty, and still utterly full of life. The titles of these alto saxophone performances are freighted with death (“LEE” for the passing of Lee Konitz, “Breonna”, “Tulsa”) and dark moods (“DOOM”, “Isolation”, “Silence”). But Shaw’s playing is gorgeous at every turn, filling any listener with the power of feeling.
The barrier to listening to solo saxophone music is often too high a hurdle. We love hearing a horn fly over a great rhythm section or supported by the harmonic cradle of a great pianist. But a melody instrument, utterly alone, has got to be dazzling to hold our attention. Shaw helps us out a couple of different ways. First, with two exceptions, he keeps his performances—which are improvisations without predetermined themes—to about three minutes in length. Second, he varies his tone by using some soprano saxophone (on “Tulsa”) and by subtly employing some echo effects (on “Breonna”).
But mainly, Shaw is supremely melodic on every track, playing with patterns and motifs that gracefully circle and vary, twist, and entertain. For example, “Temesgen” (titled, I suspect, for Ethiopian journalist Temesgen Desalegn) is built on a scale and phrasing that suggest proximity to Arab cultures, Shaw using a slightly nasal tone and employing the slapping of saxophone pads to create a hand-drum-like texture. The line wheels around in circles that widen, tighten, and then spin off into daring asides.
Similar in form but not tone or harmony is “Improvisation for Mom”, built on a set of rising/falling arpeggios. The alto repeats one often enough for it to be comforting, but he also departs from it, modulates it, turns it into a song structure on the spot—and does it with a powder-soft tone.
Happily, Shaw gets more adventurous and more sonically daring as well. The longest track at almost eight minutes, “Isolation”, uses digital effects to alter the sound of his horn and to create cycling echo effects. As he develops these sounds in largely consonant loops of chords, we still hear the saxophonic base of the sound, but the fuzzed textures help create interest. What might have been a gimmick ends up being devilishly creative—tones are bent, loops get patterned, and the saxophone is somehow central and lost at the same time.
More bold, or differently so, is “DOOM”, where Shaw synthesizes new sound just with his lips and lungs. A very subtle kind of extended technique allows the saxophone to seem almost as if it being run backward on tape, with lurches in the sound pulsing and slapping, moving toward standard articulation and then being pulled back again to peculiarity.
The overall feeling of Echoes is one of intimacy. Jaleel keeps it all close, the tunes hewing tightly in most cases, the sound warm, and cycles of sound familiar even as they dare your ears.
J.D. Allen Rambles with Bopping Authority: Queen City
On Queen City, tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen also plays in bite-sized chunks, improvising at lengths of four minutes or less. The feeling he creates, however, is much different than that of Shaw. Allen uses his brawny tone to carry on discursively, not cycling or looping prettily but telling long stories that feel like endlessly interesting lines that keep finding new directions. He sounds like a great storyteller who keeps things concise but constantly fresh.
A few performances here are based on old standards, but wow, it’s hard to tell. “Three Little Words” launches with a thumping repetition of one note, curls around, follows a boppish path across some Tin Pan Alley harmonic changes, but the melody never makes itself plain. “Just a Gigolo” follows the exact blueprint, but Allen’s reading of “These Foolish Things” begins with a loose and partial statement of the well-known tune, moves about, then comes back for a relatively unadorned reading.
These elliptical takes on classic tunes suggest what is going throughout Queen City, even when we aren’t thinking about known material. Allen is never blowing “free”—that is, without a kind of harmonic scaffolding—but he is constantly inventing melody with a freewheeling sense of motion and surprise. “Retrograde” doesn’t ever land on what sounds like a composed melody, but Allen seems to be flexing his ideas across a pleasing set of changes. “Gem and Eye” takes a different path, beginning with a concise and seemingly composed (but possibly just improvised) melodic structure and then launching into variations on the melodic idea that do not plainly follow a chordal roadmap. “Vernetta” is similar, with a composed melodic architecture that is so compelling in the first minute that it propels every other note Allen plays.
Three performances stand out. “Nyla’s Sky” has a lovely melodic contour, flowing like a ballad that deserves a larger band treatment. “Mother” uses several repeated three-note cycles to frame and set up Allen’s most emotionally and sonically raw set of improvisations. And his cover of “Wildwood Flower”, a Carter Family tune that goes way back, hovers around a written melody longest, and feels deeply grounded in a kind of sadness or loneliness that reflects the last 18 months.
At the same time, of course, like all good art, J.D. Allen’s reading of “Wildwood” suggests hope, as he spins an alone moment into communion with listeners.
Jon Irabagon Looks at History and Changes It: Bird with Streams
As good as Allen and Shaw are, Jon Irabagon’s Bird with Streams is at another level of invention and daring.
During the pandemic, Irabagon retreated to his in-laws’ home in Western South Dakota for a longer stay than anyone hoped. There, he got involved in the music of Charlie Parker as he considered Bird’s centennial year and he spent huge amounts of time hiking—and playing his tenor saxophone—around Falling Rock, a canyon on the edge of Black Hills National Forest. Across seven months, Irabagon practiced and played for five hours a day, seven days a week. And then, in the canyon, he recorded what he had discovered. It’s not his first solo saxophone collection, but it is his first recording of all standards.
But it is far from standard.
Irabagon is one of a handful of jazz unicorns, players immensely skilled and fluent in post-bop virtuosity but also riveting at free playing and “extended technique”— and capable of sliding from one to the other as if they were a single vocabulary. What he presents on Bird with Streams is a dramatic demonstration of how fruitful this approach can be, moving across styles from several directions.
His version of “Ornithology” is played on tenor saxophone with felicitous faithfulness to Parker’s intricate melody and its grounding in harmonic pattern (the “How High the Moon” chord changes). It’s not that he suddenly departs from this, showing what a wild player he can be, nope. He follows the changes and he swings like mad but, perhaps because there’s no rhythm section there to make it all sound old-fashioned, he plays with exquisite melodic freedom, seeming to be able to turn any which way in creating the sounds that express his mood, even as it colors inside the lines.
He does the same thing but from a different place on his short version of “Anthropology”, another winding bebop classic. Here, however, Irabagon plays a set of strange, multiphonic long tones that flower into cycling arpeggios that articulate melody only in carefully controlled overtones. Within a minute or so, those overblown tones spurt forth with Parker’s written line, played in a way you’ve never heard before. It’s astonishing in a completely different way.
Between these poles, the saxophonist finds all kinds of other ways of making Parker’s music—and solo saxophone music, too—fascinating again. “Sippin’ at Bells” is relatively traditional, rhythmically and harmonically, but it begins with improvisation and ends with melody. “Bebop” sounds like it’s going to be straightforward, as Irabagon begins by playing the complex melody as if he were performing with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Yet, he plays the melody in cubist fashion, refracting the precise melody into a different shape by having it change keys every couple of notes? It is “Bebop” but not, but it totally is. And during his improvisation, he takes brakes as if he were “trading fours” with the drummer, but he is just trading fours with silence.
One of Parker’s most simple and appealing tunes—arguably the one that sounded most like it was connected with the more commercially popular music of a contemporary like Louis Jordan—was “Now’s the Time”. Irabagon obliterates it utterly, beginning with the “silence” of the wind and birds in his outdoor recording space and then pushing air through his horn in a furious, buzzing flow of white noise that he alternates with muted tones and the harmonic popping of his horns pads against tone holes. Somewhere in it all, the rhythmic pattern of the pop (ha) tune is echoed out. “Mohawk” uses a similar technique, though the saxophonist finds and articulates Parker’s melody in a more revelatory way—with rhythmic flutters that seem to combine machine-gun-fast pad movement with some kind of embouchure brilliance.
Amidst these wildly different and witty ways of approaching Bird, Irabagon inserts a couple of original improvisations that are in some obvious debt to Parker’s swirling, swinging brilliance. The most arresting one is “B. Schwifty”, which prominently features the sound of the canyon, with what I suspect is a waterfall, rushing behind his own tumble of falling saxophone notes. This time, as he takes little breaks in the playing, he is truly trading fours with the sounds of nature around him. The sheeting sounds of wind are easy to make out on “Quasimodo” as well, which is my favorite track (and the longest and last), on which Irabagon fades out his own imaginative solo as he fades up the sound of the canyon, only to cut it off as the track ends abruptly.
Because Irabagon came to prominence by playing with the antic and witty group Mostly Other People Do the Killing (yes, the group that recorded Kind of Blue, note for note—but who are so much more than just that), it is tempting to read some cleverness into this closing gesture of Bird with Streams. The sudden ending, the dissipation of the music, the very fact that “Quasimodo” (that hunch-backed and deformed man who is largely SHUT INSIDE of the Notre Dame bell tower) is the final tune. All that may be suggested but not intended.
Irabagon clearly intends us to hear his refractions of the legacy of Charlie Parker as rich in meaning. In the early 1940s, Parker sprung from the tradition of this music with revolutionary daring. He cracked open a rainbow of fresh possibilities by demonstrating that a musician could reinvent the rhythmic and melodic options while honoring form and legacy. And here is Irabagon, a Philipino-American born a few generations after Bird, demonstrating how those freedoms continue to bloom in ways his hero could never have imagined.
The music, even when produced in isolation during this challenging couple of years, continues to blossom.