Jon Irabagon’s Foxy and “Jazz Masculinity”

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Jon Irabagon, Foxy (Hot Cup 102)

The cover of Foxy, the scintillating new disc from saxophonist Jon Irabagon, immediately forces its viewer to think of Sonny Rollins.

…Ok, check that, only if the viewer is previously aware of Way Out West, but let’s hold a discussion of semiotics, the responsibility of the reader and constellations of meaning to another day*….

Since Irabagon forces the issue, let’s get right down to it, shall we?  Despite the “foxy” model who signifies on Rollins’ iconic image,

…Irabagon is seen with a cowboy hat and holster on the back cover, but I couldn’t find that picture with a quick google image search…

the album’s design, font, and layout elements which mimic Rollin’s disc, and the numerous track title puns on Rollins’ tune “Doxy,” (“Foxy,” “Proxy,” “Chicken Poxy,” etc), and the tenor, bass, drums ensemble, Foxy is in no way like Rollins’ album.  There are no covers of “Wagon Wheels” or “I’m an Old Cowhand” here.  The only immediate comparison to be made – at least for me – between the two albums is the sheer virtuosity and high level of creativity and musicianship that both exhibit.

….and this is where I need to stop for a second, because I’ve read reviews by both established critics and anonymous bloggers who try and draw too strong a musical connection between the records – I don’t agree with these comparisons.  I also don’t agree with the writer who said this music isn’t “adventurous.”  And I’m still trying to hear metric modulations.  Ugh.  I was also appalled by the critic who likened Foxy to a comedy record.  I’m also convinced that had Sonny Rollins made this record it would have been hailed as a “crowning achievement of one of the all-time heavyweights of jazz,” or something like that.  But…while there are plenty of positive reviews I’ve also come across several that have a lukewarm or mixed reaction, at best.

In the course of his non-stop 78 minute solo, which was recorded in one take with no edits or splicing (I double checked with Irabagon), Irabagon blows down – and this is not hyperbole – he blows down the entire history of jazz tenor.  From ’50s R&B honkers, to Ayler-esque wailing and multiphonics, to Trane’s “sheets of sound” and motivic deconstructions, to Rollins’ ability to take a simple lick and develop the hell out of it, making it much more than the embryo  (check out what Irabagon does to a simple rising line on “Boxy”), to swinging lines more in keeping with the big band tradition, to quotes of “Now’s the Time”; Irabagon plays it all.  Although Irabagon doesn’t dive deeply into the ballad tradition he tips his Stetson to it with a quote of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” which comes out of nowhere near the album’s end, surprising me every time.

In his 1956 Downbeat review of Rollins’ Plus Four, Nat Hentoff wrote that “Rollins [plays] the most sustainedly creative tenor I’ve heard on record by him before.”  Hentoff’s “the most sustainedly creative tenor” – that’s perhaps the best phrase to describe Irabagon’s playing on Foxy.  Just as Irabagon appropriated Way Out West for his purposes, so too will I appropriate Hentoff’s quote for mine: Irabagon plays the most sustainedly creative tenor I’ve heard.  Ever.  On record.  Live.  Whatever.  Doesn’t matter who or when or what style.  The key words for me here in my evaluation of Irabagon are “sustainedly creative.”  I have never heard anything like Foxy – it fades in and stops cold when the CD runs out of storage space.  Who knows how long the trio was going for.  Irabagon and company can seemingly go forever.

…can you see where I’m going with the masculinity angle in this review’s title?  Never thought I was gonna get there, huh?…

Over 78 minutes Irabagon does not rehash any material, or give the listener any reason to think he’s noodling, or has run out of ideas.  His “sustainedly creative” solo is an encyclopedic hard drive dump of the history of tenor into the listener’s ears.  Irabagon has seemingly synthesized damn near the entire tradition, wrapped it up in a punny package that’s loaded with foxy models (there’s a naughty nurse, a bride with a come-hither stare, a dominatrix, a playful mermaid, and a model in a pink nightie), and in doing so he has asserted his, what I call, “jazz masculinity.” 

Please don’t think I’m diminishing Brendler or Altschul’s musical contributions to the record because I haven’t focused on them.  Their playing is just as sustainedly creative in terms of their traditional roles in the rhythm section.  Both men drive Irabagon, converse with each other, and do things with the time and beat that give Irabagon plenty to consider and expand upon.  They are not only essential to this album’s success, but they’re a hell of a lot of fun to listen to as well.

By “jazz masculinity” I am not talking about Irabagon’s, Brendler’s or Altschul’s actual masculinity – how they define themselves as men, how others see them as men, what they think is manly or unmanly, etc.  I am talking about an image based masculinity that jazz players create and deploy through their music and image.  Jazz has always been primarily a man’s world – and despite claims in the recent jazz press that women have pretty much made it now – it still is.  And not only a man’s world, but a heterosexual man’s world.**  Think of all the male-gendered adjectives there are to compliment someone’s playing, regardless of gender: killing, burning, etc.  Jazz has always been this way – think of the stories you read about cutting contests, guys getting up and trying to play everything they know, to not only prove their chops and creativity, but their manhood as well, and then getting their heads handed to them on a silver platter by the local patriarch.  Can you, as a man, beat another man, metaphorically killing him on stage with your horn by virtue of your superior knowledge, technique and intellect?  And can you package it in a convincing way?  It’s proving that you belong, that you have a lot to say, and you can say it in whatever fashion you want.  You have complete control.  That’s jazz masculinity. 

Irabagon and company have offered up the ideal jazz masculinity on Foxy.  They’ve got the heterosexual angle wrapped up by virtue of all the foxy models (check out the one picture where Altschul is in a beach chair, surrounded by models, getting his heart checked by the naughty nurse).  The album title and packaging force the listener or writer to put him in conversation with Rollins, arguably one of the best tenor player of all time.  It forces his listener to compare him to Rollins, which immediately places him within the reaches of the jazz pantheon.  But more than that, Irabagon has shown that he knows the tradition inside-and-out and can give it to you, in a multitude of fresh, engaging and “sustainedly creative” ways, that sounds like nobody else.  He can go and go and go, for longer than a CD can hold, needing no more than a single three quarter note pause to catch his breath and jump back in again.  Irabagon has nothing left to prove.  He belongs.  He is a force to be reckoned with.

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*Those interested in a scholarly take on Rollins’ Way Out West would do well to check out Michael Jarrett’s essay “The Tenor’s Vehicle: Reading Way Out West,” which appears on page 260 of Representing Jazz, edited by Krin Gabbard, Duke UP, 1995.

**For more on jazz as a straight man’s world check out the work by Trine Annfelt, Sherrie Tucker, David Ake, Nicole Rustin, etc etc etc.

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