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Saxman Jon Irabagon Goes Metal On Your Ass, Avant Style

Pride, Barr, Irabagon: I Don't Hear Nothin' But the Blues (and the Metal)
Pride, Barr, Irabagon: I Don't Hear Nothin' But the Blues (and the Metal)

New York City saxophone pioneer Jon Irabagon -- award-winning composer, group leader and sideman -- is lounging around on the grimy, sticky couches at West Village jazz 'n' rec hangout Fat Cat, about to blow groovy horn action for swinging bop army Fat Cat Big Band. Irabagon is celebrating the fresh launch of his own label (Irabbagast Records), reveling in its release of the second Outright! record (the wildly adventurous quintet he fronts), just returned from playing gigs with intrepid ax goddess Mary Halvorson, and sometime next year, three(!) records from buddy Moppa Elliot's Mostly Other People Do The Killing will hit the streets via the Hot Cup label.

But while Irabagon is naturally fired up on the goings on, his face lights up big time when talking about his label's inaugural release, courtesy of I Don't Hear Nothin' But The Blues. Originally a duo project with drummer extraordinaire Mike Pride (its debut released in 2009 by Loyal Label), the band has now morphed into trio status with the massacring addition of Orthrelm/Ocrilim/Krallice experi-metal klass-i-killing guitar overlord, Mick Barr. As a champion of abiding by an unconventional jazz trajectory, Irabagon happens to be way into the metal and has no qualms about fusing it into his aesthetic.

"What happened," as Irabagon explains it, "was the first Nothin' But The Blues record came out in 2009 and (music scribe/STATS drummer) Hank Shteamer wrote about it and he's like "People are comparing this to (Coltrane's) Interstellar Space but it's really not coming from there. To me, it's coming from Orthrelm's OV. At the time, I thought 'Man, how can this possibly sound like that?' So I went and got OV and it was like 'Holy crap! This is amazing!'" I definitely knew who Mick Barr and I knew that Orthrelm was one of his projects. But I hadn't really delved into it. But after that, I definitely go into that stuff. I was obsessed with Mick Barr and his solo projects."

While Pride and Barr had planned their own collaboration that never materialized, the opportunity needed to present itself in order for Don't Hear Nothin' But The Blues to welcome Barr into the fold. By stars-aligned type coincidence, that culminated at a festival in Germany. "Just by happenstance, the Moers Festival people booked Orthrelm and they booked them right after my trio (with legendary free jazz drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Peter Brendler). I think they were going for "the jazz versus metal nonstop in your face thing." So I got a chance to meet Mick and hang out with him there. Mike and Mick had met a long time ago and they had always talked about doing a project but never got a chance to do it. So, it just seemed like a perfect thing. A few months later, Mike and I had a duo gig at The Stone and we just said "Hey, let's just ask Mick to do this." It worked out and I recorded that show on my MP3 recorder and we loved it so much that we thought about releasing that. But then were like "Let's go into the studio and do it for real so we don't have a crappy sounding recording."

In furthering Irabagon's fledgling metal paradigm, that recording studio he, Pride and Barr invaded to put Volume 2: Appalachian Haze to tape happened to be Queens' godhead hub Menegroth/The Thousand Caves, where diverse records from Bushwick noise-rock duo XADDAX, Philly punk-jazz beast Many Arms and "No School" rap purveyors Talibam! were recorded. Owned and operated by the resident obliterator in math-metal wizards Dysrhthmia and Behold The Arctopus, Barr's band-mate in Krallice, recipient of NYC's Best Recording Studio honors and recent Voice feature star Colin Marston, it was Irabagon's first, and only, choice. "I had Colin master the Outright! record because I was so happy with the way the I Don't Hear Nothin' But The Blues record came out," he explains. "For my stuff in the future, I might keep trying to work with Colin because I relate to his aesthetic about certain things where it is in your face but it isn't necessarily compressed--he allows it to breathe. He's very malleable and he understands the circumstances of each different project."

 

Undoubtedly, Volume 2: Appalachian Haze is an in-your-face improv colossus and to call it epic -- it's one continuous, bloodthirsty track clocking in at an improbable 48 minutes -- would be an understatement. While the hip masses are compiling their ridiculous best of 2012 lists in early December, here now comes along Irabagon, Pride and Barr bringing arguably the ultimate melt of fire-breathing skronk-fest brawling, six-string finger-fucking virtuosity, ubiquitous percussive hooks and jabs and gale-force horn swagger that may only be rivaled by another recent massive face-rip record Barr appears on, BARR SHEA DAHL (ugEXPLODE).

Alas, for Iragabon, like its Don't Hear Nothin' But The Blues predecessor, the new Volume 2: Appalachian Haze was no easy sell. Hence, Irabaggast Records was hatched. "I couldn't get anyone to put out the first one, barely, and this one (with Mike and Mick) is even way more extreme," Irabagon says. "So it seemed like it was going to be a fruitless labor to try to send it out to a lot of labels and just have it denied. I was just ready to get the kind of comments, emails or letters back [saying] 'You know this is one fifty-minute track, right? You know I can't market this and I can't sell it?' But Mike and Mick and I believed in the recording so much so I was just like "You know what? This needs to come out one way or another. So, I just decided that it was time to see what would happen if I started my own label."

Pride, writing via email, is psyched about the collaboration. The versatile Brooklyn drummer helms jazz maestros From Bacteria to Boys, anchors experimental noisemakers The Spanish Donkey (with guitarist Joe Morris and keysmaster Jamie Saft) and also owns a deep background in punk and hardcore, has known Barr for fifteen years but playing together never came to fruition. Until now. "We had always talked about doing a project together and it never happened. We couldn't even get a jam together. But we have shared many bills together in that time. I have always been a fan of Mick's and I think Mick has always enjoyed my work. So, when I offered Mick the chance to play with Jon I at The Stone last year, he happily jumped in and knocked it out of the park. Now Mick and I are also working on a really strange duo project for tarr (an Aberganian lute) and percussion."

As for the two records, Pride offers his take on its contrasting nuances. "I think the first record sounds all over the place--which is fine because that was one of the many goals. The new record sounds much more settled and consistent, sonically. Where the first record seemed uneasy to me, the new record seems like one long ecstatic meditation."

Barr, also checking in via email, is somewhat enthused when asked about Irabagon's "metal" pedigree. "Heh. He's not much of a 'metal dude,'" Barr writes. "He's very open minded and eager to explore that world. But I definitely wouldn't want to pigeonhole him as a "jazz guy" either. That's just rude."

While Irabagon prepares for his Irabbagast Festival at Cornelia Street Café with label-launching performances by I Don't Hear Nothin' But The Blues, Outright! and his trio with Altschul and bassist Mark Helias, he's a bit bummed. Irabagon will be in his native Chicago when tech-metal magicians Behold The Arctopus play their record release show on December 15th at Saint Vitus. But he will definitely be in attendance at Dysrhythmia's show at the Greenpoint metal haunt on January 5th. "I love it, man," Irabagon says of Dysrhythmia. "I wish that there was a space for saxophone in some of those types of bands because I'd love to play in those things." Jon Irabagon's Irabbagast Records Festival takes places at Cornelia Street Café. On Thursday, Irabagon plays with Barry Altschul and Mark Helias at 9pm and I Don't Hear Nothin' But The Blues plays at 1030pm; $10 cover plus $10 minimum. On Friday, Irabagon's Outright! plays two sets at 9pm and 1030pm; $10 cover plus $10 minimum

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