A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine showed me a review he had seen of his band’s new album. (I won’t mention the band but they went on to receive a high level of critical acclaim and success.) The part of the review that stood out read like this: “Who is responsible for this shit and more importantly how can it be allowed to happen?” The relevance of this here, and why it came to mind will be explained shortly.
“Inaction Is An Action” is Jon Irabagon’s ninth release as leader and is an exploration into solo improvisations on the sopranino saxophone. It is music at its most extreme. In fact, I would argue that it is not music at all, but we’ll tackle that in a little while. This month also sees the release of Irabagon’s acoustic jazz album “Behind The Sky”, an excellent album featuring Tom Harrell with some awesome writing and performances. I reviewed this album and gave it 4/5 stars. Now then, let’s make one thing clear. My ears are open to all kinds of music, including the avant-garde and experimental end of the spectrum. And even if there is music that is not particularly to my taste, I would like to think I can at least appreciate the thought and skill behind it. Irabagon’s skill and technical ability is not in question; far from it. He is an extremely talented musician capable of writing and performing across a wide range of musical styles and genres. I commend any artist for pushing the boundaries and not being afraid to stand up for what they believe in, but the question has to be asked as to whether there comes a point where an artist’s introspection loses any relevance to a watching, or in this case, listening audience. “Inaction Is An Action” is made up of several exploratory compositions, written and performed by Irabagon. He takes the wonderful sopranino sax and creates sounds and noises using many blowing and playing techniques from different parts of the instrument, resulting in a diverse and extremely challenging recording. Irabagon explains the premise behind the album: “There is a deep and varied tradition of solo saxophone recordings, and I have been influenced by a lot of it, mainly by the works of Ned Rothenberg, Douglas Ewart, Evan Parker, John Zorn, Steve Lacy, John Butcher, Lol Coxhill, Roscoe Mitchell, Lee Konitz, Anthony Braxton and Jeffrey Morgan. It has been intimidating and humbling to try to contribute to that lineage. As I started playing sopranino saxophone more in recent years, I realized that because my relationship with this instrument is so new and not influenced by other sopranino players, it was the right opportunity to dig into the possibilities that the instrument offers and build a solo record from the ground up. I dedicated last year to over a dozen solo shows, almost a hundred sessions with like-minded musicians and countless hours in a practice room breaking the ‘nino’ down and experimenting with anything that came to mind to try to expand my sonic palette and discover more usable extended techniques.” All very noble and justifiably well intended, and I am not in any way questioning Irabagon’s sincerity and his own personal reasons for making this recording. But this is not music. It is an exploration into the possibilities of sound that in this case, can be cajoled and summoned from the internal and external workings of a musical instrument. Technically speaking Irabagon has achieved something nobody else has. Having listened to this album several times there can’t possibly be a sound emanating from the sax that Irabagon hasn’t discovered here. But it still isn’t music. And it isn’t something that 99.9 percent of mankind would want to listen to. And so on to that quotation from the reviewer at the beginning of this piece. Well, it isn’t shit. It is actually very clever. But other than Irabagon and a handful of musicians, what’s the point? Yes, I understand the relevance to the saxophonist himself, but seriously, why release this? On to the second part of that quotation; how can it be allowed to happen?… Well, herein lies my biggest gripe and one of the pros and cons of heading up your own record label. On the one hand it gives the artist the musical freedom to release what they want to make, but on the other hand, there is potentially a serious lack of control or self discrimination over what gets released. Would a decent indy or major serious music label have released this album? I think not. Is there an audience? Is it a valid and relevant release? No.
If I put my serious hat on, “Inaction is An Action” includes slap tonguing, multiphonics, vocal manipulation, flutter tonguing, growling, extreme registers, circular breathing, squeals and squeaking, blowing into the bell end of the horn, playing without a reed, playing without a mouthpiece, quarter tones, overtone manipulation, air/spit experimentation and much more. If I put my childishly cynical hat on, “Inaction Is An Action” includes bottom burps, spluttering, an old woman choking to death, arm pit farts, cranky old machinery, screeching hyenas and a nightmarish vision of something masquerading as music… and much more. At the end of the day it’s all about opinions I suppose. I have mine, other people will have theirs. The only way for you to formulate your own opinion on this album is to listen to it. So go on then, if you feel so inclined.