— BEN RATLIFF, NY Times News Service
There’s a lot of willful unruliness in Jon Irabagon’s music, and more than a little cheek. A tenor and alto saxophonist of imposing and almost inexhaustible facility, Irabagon cuts a cavalier figure on the left-of-center New York jazz grid, often raising a cheerful ruckus as he stealthily hits his mark. He’s a musician of intense concentration who wants nothing more than to indulge a spirit of play, emphatic and unreserved.
That objective hasn’t always squared with his path as a 21st-century jazz prodigy. Raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Irabagon moved to New York for conservatory, and then won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. As part of his spoils, he made one major-label album, working with respected elders and reining in his wilder energies.
That brush with acceptability seems only to have hardened his maverick resolve. The latest evidence comes in the form of two proudly intemperate albums on Irabbagast, his new label: Unhinged, the second release by his ecstatic postbop band Outright!, and I Don’t Hear Nothin’ but the Blues Volume 2: Appalachian Haze, made in partnership with the drummer Mike Pride and the guitarist Mick Barr.
Barr, who comes from the obsessive realm of experimental metal, proves a strong instigative engine for Irabagon. (Their collaboration came about after one free-thinking critic compared the first volume of I Don’t Hear Nothin’ but the Blues, which had just saxophone and drums, to an album by Orthrelm, a main outlet of Barr.)
Appalachian Haze unfolds as a single spontaneous gesture, spasmodic in its immediate effect but possessed of a greater sense of order, like a Jackson Pollock canvas. The album clocks in just under 48 minutes, with nothing resembling a restful pause — but within the merciless thrash of notes, there are many small flickers of grace, often originating with Pride. If this is a stern monument to endurance, it’s also touchingly egoless.
Unhinged is — despite its title and cover art, which sends up Clinton-era hip-hop visual cliches — the more methodical outing, covering a catholic range of style, from Latin-jazz (Lola Pastillas) to fusion (Kremzeek!). Outright! features Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Jacob Sacks on piano and organ, John Hebert on bass and Tom Rainey on drums, and favors a lurching, quick-change interplay; you’ll lose track of the number of head fakes in Charles Barkley, which Irabagon has recorded before. The only cover is Paul Desmond’s Take Five,rendered all but unrecognizable as a fervent incantation.