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Music Review: Jon Irabagon – Foxy

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As one of today’s most versatile and interesting saxophonists, Jon Irabagon is always good for a compelling listen. His fourth recording as a leader, Foxy, is no different.

This is a test of endurance, without question. Running over 78 minutes, Foxy is an uninterrupted performance. Featuring Irabagon on sax, the legendary Barry Altschul on drums and Peter Brendler on bass, the album is an exploration and manipulation of the standard sixteen bar form. More than that, though, it’s an exercise in colouring outside the lines.

I’ve been rifling through a lot of Irabagon’s work lately. His appearance in Moppa Elliot’s Mostly Other People Do the Killing was a convention-flaunting ride, while his work in Big V Chord and Bryan and the Haggards was also astonishingly cool.

As the leader here, Irabagon gets to flaunt convention all over again. This Hot Cup Records release is the perfect showcase for the winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition to strut and stride. Believe me, he makes the most of the opportunity as he storms through long-form improv and cyclic motifs with the precision of a surefire master.

Foxy is divided up into tracks, but don’t assume that means there are bathroom breaks. The trio pulls the sixteen bar form apart and puts it back together again throughout the course of the recording and each track is a mere road marker along the way to the album’s sudden finish.

The title track opens things up like a pure improv session, but drummer Altschul taps in to some structure and Irabagon behaves himself for the time being. Bassist Brendler walks it out for a minute or two, underlining the saxophonist’s blowing with gentle precision. It’s a slow burn.

As if rolling down a hill, the momentum of the album picks up from the opening track and never stops speeding towards the intersection. Bowling over everything in its path, Foxy takes the listener through some ear-stretching magic along the way. There’s the wicked and weird repetition of “Roxy” that proves trying. And there’s the funky bitonal improv of “Unorthodoxy” with pinpoint drumming and head-nodding grooves.

Most of the fun from Foxy comes out of listening to the various tracks take shape. The way “Hydroxy” morphs into the classic jump swing of “Biloxi,” for instance, is almost surreal.

At the end of Foxy, it’s time for a deep breath and a drink or six. It’s an exuberant record, one that tries on your understanding of form while proving entirely classic in architecture. Irabagon knows his stuff and his cheerful toying of the “rules” is ultimately terrific. That he’s backed by such seasoned performers on this highway of craziness is all the better.

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