Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares produced its eighth, Year of the Pandemic livestreamed concert in Holyoke, MA. on Sunday, April 18 featuring the Jon Irabagon Quartet. The seventh such event, which took place in Amherst on December 9, 2020, starred the Anna Webber/Eric Wubbels Duo. These “half-a-loaf” concerts are, I suppose, better than none. While there is no substitute for being in the vibrational presence of living musicians, at least these events are being well presented and well documented by talented folks at Amherst Media and Holyoke Media. The chief benefit of producing during a shutdown, of course, are the real paydays they provide musicians and the chance for them to dust off some performing cobwebs. '
Irabagon’s Quartet: Matt Mitchell, piano, Chris Lightcap, bass and Dan Weiss, drums, performed at a nearly empty Wistariahurst Museum that was livestreamed by Holyoke Media. Irabagon was downright giddy at the opportunity to tour again after 13 months holed up. Irabagon reveled in the pleasures of laughing, bonding and listening to music while travelling with bandmates, as well as seeing his compositions come to life in real time. Fully vaccinated, the Quartet traversed the northeast in a stripped-down version of a tour that originally had 15 dates in 15 days. That routing miracle, of which Irabagon was rightfully proud, was laid waste by the twin scourges of the coronavirus and the Trump response. The only reason the concerts happened at all was the support of a Jazz Road touring grant that was due to expire.
The compositions we heard on Sunday were inspired by Irabagon’s recent 12-hour car ride from his childhood home (Chicago) to his current residence (New York). He spent the trip immersed in the music of Weather Report, the foundational 1970s fusion band co-led by Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. Since not all the concert producers had access to an acoustic bass, Irabagon wrote a number of pieces that wove Lightcap’s phenomenal electric bass skills into his fusion vision. While the music we heard on Sunday did not draw direct comparison to Weather Report, much of it was funky in the extreme and full of memorable melody. After the concert – their sixth in six days – the group headed home to New York, where they were to record the next day.
Besides myself and Jazz Shares Vice President Priscilla Page, the only other audience was recent Amherst transplant Davy Lazar, a fantastic trumpet player who sat in on the last number, two friends of Irabagon’s, and Holyoke Media’s Scott MacPherson. Outside on the lawn next to an open screen door were Jazz Shares Board member Motoko Inoue and Peter Dellert. On instructions from the band, we applauded as best we could; it was a poignant reminder of how much musicians have missed interacting with audiences.
Irabagon is ever curious and resourceful. As the pandemic hit New York, he moved to South Dakota to stay with his wife’s family. He soon found a nearby canyon where he could practice for hours a day. Bird with Streams, his canyon recording of Charlie Parker tunes, is due soon. His music bursts in many directions. He gifted me six CDs, all but one on his own Irabbagast Records label. Among them a solo sopranino recording, three small groups in the “jazz tradition”, a new music date with string quartet and piano and a shredding noise group Irabagon calls his “brutal ensemble”.
Saxophonist and flutist Anna Webber and pianist Eric Wubbels moved to Greenfield, MA within the past year and were able to travel to Amherst Media to perform safely in December amidst growing infection rates. The repertoire, written by Webber and Wubbels, included impossibly fast unison lines, angular abstractions, periods of silence, split tones and melody as moody and romantic as one could wish for. The music was equal parts improvised and through composed.
Wubbels is a graduate of Amherst College and since 2004 has been pianist and co-director of the Wet Ink Ensemble, named Best Classical Music Ensemble of 2018 by the New York Times. In 2018, Jazz Shares hosted Webber’s Simple Trio featuring Matt Mitchell and John Hollenbeck. She also leads a septet and big band. The two are in the vanguard of artists fusing the worlds of new music and jazz, notated and improvised music.
Along with people like Darius Jones and James Brandon Lewis, Anna Webber and Jon Irabagon are among a small throng of dynamic and prolific reed players in their 30s and 40s who are obliterating our neat understanding of what a jazz saxophonist does.