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Jon Irabagon: Examining All The Angles

R.J. DeLuke By

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It's a more creative and experimental music that catches my ear. If that's what I'm going for and what I hear in my head as a musician, you've got to stick with your gut and your heart. —Jon Irabagon
Saxophonist Jon Irabagon likes challenges in music; likes attempting different things. He's not opposed to things traditional, but would prefer to come at music and sounds from different angles. He enjoys the journey; enjoys experiencing the results.

At 35, he's on the go all the time, ubiquitous on the New York City music scene. In the next minute, he's often off to Europe on tour with one of his own groups or playing as a sideman. Not long after he came to New York from Chicago in 2001, he was there for the birth of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the brazen, experimental, sometimes chaotic group that combines different styles and genres in its improvisational mix. He's played with daring trumpeter Dave Douglas, is part of guitarist Mary Halvorson's group and is putting together an album of more mainstream jazz. In August, Irabagon did a three-day residency at the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York, playing with different musicians each night including Michael Formanek, Tom Rainey, Luis Perdomo, Yasushi Nakamura and Rudy Royston and others.

His strong, edgy sound and off-the-beaten-path approach, stemming from the tradition but parrying and thrusting with it, is in demand. An Irabagon solo can take the listener across Sonny Rollins through John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and into rock and other-worldly sounds. Exploring in the moment is what's important.

He's studied the jazz tradition, academically and otherwise. "I enjoy those [older] players," he says. "I feel like the more details you can get into with progressions and with chord changes, the more you can feel free to break away from them because you've got that language under your fingers. When I'm practicing, I try to hone in on those things and try to get more effective and precise with those kinds of things. When I'm playing on a gig or on a show, you want to have all that information under your fingers. But I want to have an attitude like: It's 'go' time and you don't need to necessarily perform that way."

A great example of Irabagon on a gig of his liking is his recent CD, It Takes All Kinds recorded live with drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Mark Helias (both also part of the Cornelia Street Cafe affair). it's a free-wheeling gig with the musicians covering all kinds of improvisational ground. Its music like this that the saxophonist uses his traditional training as a jumping off point.

"I want to be as interactive with Barry and Mark as possible. If they all of a sudden want to make a left turn and go somewhere else, I want to be able to go with them," he says. "Having that information ready is a good thing, but the more important thing is to be able to move around with your fellow musicians at any given time... I always feel like the best music is when you're attacking it like that."

Irabagon says Altschul and Helias are among his musical heroes. He first heard the drummer on Dave Holland's Conference of the Birds album (ECM, 1973) with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton. "I just knew that I wanted to play with that guy at some point," he says of Altschul.

"When I moved to New York, one of the first things I did was try to seek him out. Eventually I found him and we started playing sessions. To play with somebody who has been around for so long and has played with so many different musicians in so many styles was a huge drawing point. We started playing together and I started writing different types of music specifically for Barry, with him in mind. The result of that is this record."

A fan of Helias as well, Irabagon managed to play with both at different points over the years. He had it in his mind to form a trio. "Where they're coming from, from their different angles, I wanted to see what would happen. This concert we recorded came out so well, we wanted to put it out. That's how it came about."

The saxophonist also brought in Altschul for his Foxy album some years ago (Hot Cup Records, 2005) and Irabagon is featured on the drummer's The 3Dom Factor record released last year (TUM label) with Joe Fonda on bass. "There's another record of that trio, that's mostly free improvised, that's coming out either at the end of this year or early next year," he notes. "I've been fortunate enough to play with Barry in a lot of different situations over the last couple of years. It's helped my growth and maturity as a musician tremendously."

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