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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."

Irabagon's loose playing style coincides with the shifting, but strong feel Altschul puts forth. He's played with straight-ahead drummers and enjoys it, but "when I'm playing with Barry, he definitely opens up this clear, more open kind of thing. Barry can swing straight up also. I love the contrast and the flexibility that he gives you when you're actually performing. Some nights it'll be completely free. And some nights he'll want to go straight into the swing thing for a long time. When the 'free' thing happens out of that, it's a very effective transition and different. I like the idea of having different angles available all the time, because you never know what the right thing is for the moment."

Irabagon toured Europe recently with Altschul and Helias, playing some of the music from the new record, as well as new tunes he wrote for that band. At some point, he expects that new music to be recorded. "I want to play as much as possible with those guys. Every time I play with them, I learn so much. I want to keep that going," he says.

Of course, he is still involved with Mostly Other People Do the Killing, with whom he was scheduled to play in November in Berlin. The core of that band with Irabagon is pianist Ron Stabinsky, bassist Moppa Elliott, trumpeter and drummer Kevin Shea. Brandon Seabrook on banjo and Dave Taylor on trombone were added for the Berlin gig.

"We all came to New York about the same time. We started playing and hanging out. We became friends," Irabagon says. "The thing about that band is it was built on four specific people with four specific personalities and philosophies on music and life. We made sure to bring all those things into the music. It's a democratic band. We all had say in where things went. For the first couple years of that band, we were playing tiny basement shows in New York, not making any money. We could see there was something different and something special about that band, so we kept it going. Now, 10 years later, it's still something we're doing." He notes that, outside of the new recording, trumpeter Peter Evans has moved on from the group.

That new album, released on October 14, is Blue (Hot Cup Records), a note-for-note re-creation of Miles Davis' classic Kind of Blue. Such a thing is bound to get critics harping on either side of the "re-creation" issue. But for Irabagon "it was a daunting project to undertake, for sure. Probably the most difficult thing we have done in our careers. The most effort for the least return."

He says the project took several years of transcribing, several times back in the studio to get the music closer to the original. "We got as close as we could get. And at the end, you can still hear the basic differences that make each musician sound like himself. It was an immense learning process and we gained so much appreciation for the aspects of music that people don't really talk about as much: the timbre, the articulation, the exact time placement that isn't even and 'correctly' placed all the time. The level of examination we explored with this will definitely help us in future projects."

He says the band has changed somewhat over the decade, "but the philosophies behind it are still the same and still come from the same place. It was a very formative time in my music career that we started hanging out and making music. A lot of the values from that ensemble have transferred over into other groups that I play in and lead. It was very good for me at that time to meet people who had the same kinds of ideals and values in music and what we were looking for. It was very fortuitous for me."

Irabagon is busy. In addition to playing with guitarist Halvorson, he has recorded an album of mainstream jazz—all original music—with Royston, Perdomo and bassist Nakamura, with trumpeter Tom Harrell appearing on three tracks. That record will come out in 2015. On top of that, he is working on a record of solo saxophone, using the sopranino saxophone, a small sax tuned an octave above the alto sax.

"There's a big history, especially for saxophone, of solo records. Coleman Hawkins' 'Picasso' [an unaccompanied piece recorded in 1948. Anthony Braxton, that whole record of just alto saxophone. [For Alto, Delmark, 1970] Then Evan Parker started doing stuff. So the lineage of solo saxophone records has been growing steadily and its a wonderful world of different kinds of sounds and different kinds of music," explains Irabagon. "For several years I've known in the back of my mind I wanted to be able to contribute to the solo saxophone lineage. But it's taken me a lot of time to figure out where I want to go with that. It's kind of intimidating to me. Now that I've got the straight-ahead jazz record pretty much done, I've been spending a lot of time on the solo sopranino record and trying to figure out what to do with that. I'm hoping to finish that soon and maybe release both records at the same time."

As long as the music is creative and allows Irabagon to experiment and learn, the native of the Chicago suburbs is on board. He started playing sax in the fifth grade but was already taking piano lessons from his aunt. Eventually, he narrowed his musical pursuit to the sax, though he still composes on piano. Irabagon wasn't exposed to jazz until he was in high school. He was an avid radio listener, and as such absorbed pop, rock, country and hip-hop. The music he was influenced by "would change from year to year, or even from month too month," he notes.
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