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Jon Irabagon: The Observer

John Sharpe By

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Back in the day this might have been seen as an "In the tradition" statement for someone like saxophonist Jon Irabagon—last heard in freely improvised settings on I Don't Hear Nothin' But The Blues {Loyal, 2009), with drummer Mike Pride, and the RIDD Quartet's Fiction Avalanche (Clean Feed, 2008), or artful deconstructions of the Blue Note oeuvre with Mostly Other People Do The Killing. But such terms seem outmoded for young genre-busting musicians like Irabagon. With the 2008 Thelonious Monk Institute prize under his belt there can be no doubting the saxophonist's chops in a straight-ahead setting and this delightful record date, which formed part of the winnings, provides confirmation were it needed.

To make the most of the opportunity Irabagon reunited pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Victor Lewis, best known as a unit for their work with the departed Stan Getz. Together they tackle a 61-minute program of three lesser-known pieces from the jazz canon and seven originals in the same vernacular. Barron is the epitome of grace, whether comping or taking off out front, while Irabagon proves fleet of finger and thought as his sweet-toned alto floats and pirouettes above the sleekly driving rhythm section. Occasionally his solos verge into multiphonics or take on a vocalized edge to remind that this is the 21st century mainstream, but otherwise he swings with insouciant poise.

Nicholas Payton's punchy trumpet spices two tracks and his volatile solo on "Big Jim's Twins" provokes a mercilessly cookin' outpouring from Irabagon, playing as if he has a point to prove. After that Elmo Hope's "Barfly" is like a cool balm applied by his widow Bertha's spare accompaniment for Irabagon's poignantly soaring saxophone. But Irabagon can pen a good tune too; witness how the careworn melody of "January Dream" snags in the mind, evincing another strong solo from the composer. The problem for someone who can do it all is choosing where to concentrate effort to most effect. It may take a while for Irabagon to decide, but this will do very nicely in the meantime.

Track Listing: January Dream; Joy's Secret; The Infant's Song; Cup Bearers; The Observer; Acceptance; Makai and Tacoma; Big Jim's Twins; Barfly; Closing Arguments.

Personnel: Jon Irabagon: alto saxophone; Kenny Barron: piano (1-8, 10); Rufus Reid: bass (1-8, 10); Victor Lewis: drums (1-8, 10); Nicholas Payton: trumpet (2, 8); Bertha Hope: piano (9).

Title: The Observer | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Concord Music Group

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