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When COVID struck, saxophonist Jon Irabagon fled locked-down New York City for the much less constrictive landscape of South Dakota. The wide open spaces agreed with him, yielding last year’s Bird With Streams, a solo album recorded in a reverberant canyon on the outskirts of Black Hills National Forest.
For his follow-up, Rising Sun, Irabagon draws inspiration from the open road with half a dozen new compositions written during a family trek through South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. It’s a fitting backdrop for an artist whose interests are ever-changing and whose delight in the discovery of new sonic terrain always shines through his performances. While some of his peers may share Irabagon’s virtuosic talents, few exhibit the sheer exuberant joy that colors even his most complex and daring flights.
Rising Sun is not as intimate a dialogue with the scenery as its predecessor — it was recorded in the more traditional confines of a Brooklyn studio. But it retains the expansive, freewheeling breeziness of the great outdoors even while navigating some intricate twists and turns, as if the band were cruising briskly along mountain switchbacks. Irabagon has gathered musicians uniquely equipped to steer that tricky course: The core quartet features keyboardist Matt Mitchell, bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Dan Weiss, joined for two tracks apiece by guitarist Miles Okazaki and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill.
As the rhythm section lunges into a jaunty, rollicking groove on opener “Sundance,” Irabagon’s tenor (unusually, the noted multi-instrumentalist sticks to one axe throughout this outing) seems to burble out of the bedrock, parrying Mitchell’s barbed piano work. The tune closes with a turn into the gospel according to Sonny Rollins. Weiss’ elusive rhythms and Lightcap’s slippery electric bass underline the tension of “Alliance,” while “Hoodootoo” is fueled by collision, Irabagon spitting staccato bursts as Mitchell’s violent chords slam into Okazaki’s metallic riffs like waves crashing onto jagged rocks.
Adam O’Farrill’s searching, distracted trumpet perfectly fits the lurching, unsteady mood of “Mammoth,” while Okazaki lays down shards of abstract funk on the title track. Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop,” every bit as much an American landmark as the canyons, mountains and forests depicted in Irabagon’s originals, proceeds at a breakneck pace, and closing tune “Needles” takes advantage of Mitchell’s glossy Rhodes and O’Farrill’s precise blowing to conjure a sly wink at fusion. — Shaun Brady