Focussing on themes of love and loss, “Behind the Sky” explores the grieving process through the medium of eleven Irabagon compositions. But if you’re expecting a down-beat, introspective album of solemnity, think again. This is an unusually straight-ahead jazz album for Irabagon, his more familiar territory leading him into more experimental modes of jazz. “Behind the Sky” is filled with hard swinging, deep grooves and features some incredibly good tunes from Irabagon, proving without doubt the multi talented saxophonist/composer can turn his hand with ease to any particular genre he chooses. The songwriting is masterful. There is an immediate accessibility to the tunes, an almost familiar feel, whilst leaving room for some innovative, interactive soloing from all of the musicians involved. Joining Irabagon is Luis Perdomo on piano, Yasushi Nakamura, bass, and Rudy Royston, drums. The session also includes special guest Tom Harrell on trumpet and flugelhorn. Irabagon explains the premise of the album: “I lost a couple of loved ones and mentors in a short amount of time, and the music I had been writing began to reflect different aspects of dealing with those losses. I wanted to celebrate their lives and their spirit and legacy, and that feeling and attitude became the first tune on the record, “One Wish.” When I realised that these various stages of mourning were important and different to everyone, the rest of the tunes started to write themselves.” This recording is jazz of the highest standard, the strength and unity of the band’s performance being a key feature; bold, daring, precise and at times simply spellbinding. Great interaction and creativity throughout. I could listen to this over and over and still enjoy the element of surprise and sheer brilliance of the soloing. The album opens with one of its strongest tracks, “One Wish”. Setting the tone for the rest of the album, the togetherness of the musicians is immediately apparent. A thoughtful, melodic opening soon develops into some soulful soloing from pianist Perdomo. The killer rhythm section then provides the base for the lyrical elegance of Irabagon’s sax improvisations. The band leader plays with freedom and verve, structured yet loose at the same time. The band are just so tight, so cool and effortless. “The Cost of Modern Living” could well be a classic you’ve never heard. It drives with a joyful passion and swings like crazy. Irabagon sizzles with his imaginative soloing, all underpinned by a burning fireball of drums, bass and piano. Perdomo takes up the mantle with a scorching piano solo, a feature of the whole album being the time and space the composer leaves for each band member to shine. Just listen to the last couple of minutes of this track and you’ll know exactly what I mean. The yearningly beautiful “Music Box Song (For When We’re Apart)” is the perfect example of how good this composer is. It’s melancholy is never overpowering, the beauty of the melody shining through with the saxophonist providing one of the album’s most soulful solos. Nakamura provides a searching, lyrically engaging bass solo as the tune moves into an extended coda section and a chance for the emotion to pour out from piano and sax. Irabagon switches to soprano sax for his duet with pianist Perdomo on “Lost Ship at The Edge of Sea”. A wonderfully crafted piece, it’s all about the mood here, with the duo taking the listener on an inner journey, emotive and passionate. The life-affirming “100 Summers” is reminiscent of Jarrett and Garbarek in their 70’s heyday. A conversational, immersive piece of music sees the quartet facing challenges together and creating a rarified glowing beauty that shimmers and sparkles with inventiveness. As stunning a piece of music as I will hear from anyone this year. There’s a gleeful exuberance to the title track “Behind the Sky (Hawks and Sparrows). Irabagon plays tenor and soprano simultaneously with the composer making comment; “The two voices symbolise yourself alongside the experiences with and love for the ones you’ve lost.” And it works, once again featuring some highly creative and engaging musicianship from all involved. Tom Harrell brings a graceful poignancy to the proceedings. Harrell is a longtime hero of Irabagon’s and the legendary trumpeter brings a lyrical buoyancy to the wonderfully enigmatic piece “Eternal Springs”. The interplay on this track between drums and piano is also astonishing, there’s so much going on it’s easy to overlook the contribution of Harrell. The trumpeter shines on “Obelisk”; some ravishing horn harmonies going on here. Nakamura’s walking bass takes us into slightly more off kilter territory with Perdomo’s ethereal piano allowing for the sax and trumpet combo to cut through in style. “Still Water” is a more reflective piece and once again allows the two horn players to combine with a graceful ease.
“Beyond the Sky” is Jon Irabagon’s eighth release as a leader, and possibly his most straight-ahead jazz album to date. The tunefulness and spirited performances make this a stand-out recording no matter what the genre. Irabagon sums it up; “Behind the Sky goes back to basics and aims for hard-swinging deep grooves and detailed group interaction. The songs are meant to be recognisable and enjoyable.” And that they most certainly are. Potentially at the opposing end of the musical spectrum, Irabagon also releases his full length experimental solo soprano saxophone recording, “Inaction Is An Action”, this September. This simultaneous release emphasises the breadth, scope and vision of Irabagon and his record label and this has to be a good thing for a writer and performer who’s distinctive personality is lighting up the world of jazz.