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Jon Irabagon Plays KC Jazz Club

Franz A. Matzner By

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Jon Irabagon

Kennedy Center

Washington D.C.

October 30, 2009

Simple without being simplistic; straightforward without being strictly straight-ahead; unpretentious, yet artistically thoughtful; humble, yet full of youthful confidence, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk Competition, showcased a compelling mix of humor, technique, and engaging music during his October 30 concert at the Kennedy Center's KC Jazz Club.

A native of Illinois, Irabagon picked up the saxophone as a youngster. Describing this occasion in his usual modest manner he explains, "I started to play in the 4th grade. You know, they have instrument day at school, right? I didn't want to play flute or clarinet. I wanted to play trumpet. I tried and couldn't make a sound on it, so they were like try the saxophone—and they only offered alto. 'Cause we were all tiny, you know? And so I just stuck with it."

By all measures, Irabagon did a little more than just stick with it. By high school he had begun serious musical study, including playing gigs in the surrounding Chicago area. After graduating from DePaul University, Irabagon set out to further expand his musical education, beginning an ongoing process of seeking out particular teachers from whom to learn. "There [was] this guy, Dick Oats, who plays alto for the Vanguard Band," explained Irabagon. "And I thought, 'Where does he teach?' So I looked it up—the Manhattan School of Music—and thought, 'OK, I'm going to try and go there." Which he did, graduating in 2003, following which he joined the jazz program at the Julliard School.

Despite this formidable education, Irabagon is still on a quest to study with an ever-growing roster of musicians to help refine and push his sound, explaining that the ability to do so is one of the clear benefits he's gained from winning the Monk Competition.

"The money helped—is helping. Half of it is for your personal use. The other half is for furthering education.... I have a specific list of people who I've never met, and I can use the money to take a lot of lessons from these different people who I might not have had access to otherwise."

The winner's package also includes a recording opportunity, which resulted in Irabgaon's latest release, The Observer, and the opportunity to play at the Kennedy Center. Speaking about that opportunity, Irabagon explained, "I did the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program. I'd seen the Kennedy Center on TV, but getting to walk around here for those two weeks, I kept thinking, 'Man, it would be a really special thing to come back here and play sometime.' But I kind of tucked that away. Now, when I got the call to come and play, it was really special. Wow."

Playing with his touring quartet of Frank Kimbrough (piano), Peter Brendler (bass), and veteran drummer Victor Lewis, Irabagon embraced that opportunity, quickly charming the audience with his refreshingly genuine, open persona, warm tone, and vivacious playing style. Concentrating on tunes from the The Observer, along with a few newer pieces, Irabagon adeptly blended audience appeal with creative complexity.

From the opening original composition "January Dream" to the closing standard "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," Irabagon, with the help of his quartet, built an effective tension between a more traditional style, founded on an admitted loyalty to alto greats like Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt, and more modern stylistic elements in part influenced by Irabagon's experimentation on tenor. Switching between the two instruments, Irabagon wove these two facets together to shape multi-textured solos and well-crafted compositional arcs, exhibiting both a precisely constructed vision and personal sound notable as much for its subtlety as technical facility.

Throughout the evening, Irabagon also benefited from the support of his bandmates, whose group dynamic and individual soloing helped elevate the overall performance. While Lewis grounded the tunes with his constantly shifting, Bop-based rhythms, Kimbrough provided challenging accompaniment and several smooth solos. Matching Irabagon's blending of traditional style with modern voicing with his own nuanced and lithe playing, Brendler not only delivered multiple crisp, precisely articulated solos, but also pursued a playful interaction with the drummer throughout that added an important layer of dynamism.

Working together in this way, the quartet ably fulfilled Irabagon's stated goal "to create a good groove and a good atmosphere for people to enjoy the music" and deliver "something that people can agree with, [while] bring[ing] out melodic aspects and group interactive concepts."

Most of all, however, the band simply put on a good show, the most satisfying aspect of which was the obvious enjoyment each player took in playing together for the crowd.

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