Axis is an unorthodox sax, guitar, drums unit, uniting lauded Filipino-American saxophonist Jon Irabagon with Bergen-based musicians John Hegre & Nils Are Drønen.
Hegre is Lasse Marhaug’s partner in the duo Jazzkammer/Jazkamer; Drønen is a member of Rune Grammofon-recorded The Last Hurrah!!, whose leader HP Gundersen apparently made the connection with Irabagon, a bandleader and a member of Mostly Other People Do The Killing, the Mary Halvorson and Dave Douglas Quintets, and Barry Altschul’s rather wonderful 3Dom Factor.
The ad-hoc nature of the trio is explicit on this album. It has just two pieces, both excerpts from live shows: “Berlin” (17:43), recorded guess where in Germany in June 2013, and likewise “Fukuoka” (18:56), Japan, January 2015.
I don’t know, but I guess it’s safe to assume that the trio’s time together has been limited. The first eight minutes of “Berlin” are all Irabagon, sensitively backed by Hegre and Drønen at their most gesturally minimal and impressionistic. The saxophonist has the luxury of time and space in which to unspool a deliberative, nuanced extended solo with rare depth of feeling. But notes of sourness creep in to his infelections, and the mood slowly changes. Hegre bends pitches and lances Irabagon’s held breaths with acute sustains, and Drønen carefully accentuates tensions.
And then, after eight minutes, there’s a radical shift in gear and the trio become much more aggressive. Hegre’s guitar suddenly sounds more like a vigorously bowed amplified cello than a guitar, Drønen thunders arond the kit, and Irabagon bites out, chews over and spits out phrases as if he’s sucking out their sonic marrow. Hegre introduces some nice etherial effects, which temper the mood somewhat, but Irabagon responds by wringing a sour drizzle from held notes, and the performance only grows in intensity. It reaches peak ferocity out in interstellar space, in the kind of ecstatics mapped out by John Coltrane’s late live performances.
“Fukuoka” shows every sign that the trio regrouped in Japan a year and a half later with that Berlin performance still vivid in mind. It’s a chewier and more abstract performance, with Hegre’s picking wiry and metallic and Irabagon’s phrases more vocal, and both engaged in a three-way push-pull with Drønen’s rackety kit probes.
This time out they moderate the pace collectively, which means they can exercise more control and draw down towards silence while maintaining tension and interest. Irabagon and Hegre truffle up some terse, chewy improviations. The cathartic climax, when it comes, is sudden and abrasive. The stripped-back sound, with no bass to balance the treble of thrashed cymbals and roughly arpeggiated guitar, is as bracing as a shock of water. But there, again, there’s Irabagon in the style of Trane and Archie Shepp, condensing the fervency of gospel into terse vocal phrases that imprint the exultancy of abandon with musicality.
The unfamiliarity of the musicians gives this album its bite and a palpable sense of danger: playing on edge, which is what makes live improv so viscerally thrilling, pithily translated to disc.
Jon Irabagon – saxophone; John Hegre – guitar; Nils Are Drønen – drums.
Buy Axis direct from Rune Grammofon.