Saxophonist Jon Irabagon Takes Us By Storm

Jon Irabagon
Outright Unhinged
Concord Jazz

Sometimes jazz just gets overrun by a talent, a new player who seems to appear everywhere at once, playing in all sorts of styles, leading bands but also becoming a Cadillac sideman. There’s something about the way talent ripens in art—and maybe in jazz in particular—that creates these sudden flowerings.

I’ve recently been reading Why Jazz Happened a “social history” of jazz from bebop on forward by Marc Myers, and the early chapter describes well the way that Dizzy Gillespie was covering the scene in the early ’40s, bringing his new voice into the open is seven different ways at once. Concerts, club dates, recordings, compositions—before you really know it, there’s a musician who simply cannot be ignored.

Right now, saxophonist Jon Irabagon is one of those artists. He first popped in our ears in 2008—the year that he won the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition and the year that he appeared on the album This Is Our Moosic by the antic jazz quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing. From this beginning, the point was not that Irabagon could play—of course he can play—but that he had a powerfully different voice. Jon Irabagon is a jazz musician with something to say.

Killing It As a Sideman

With Mostly Other People Do The Killing (MOPDTK), Irabagon was initially playing alto sax in a quartet with no piano or guitar—part of an Ornette Coleman-style band that plays with antic humor. Not only are the string of MOPDTK albums set up as parodies or hip gags related to older styles of jazz, but the music itself is arch and fun: marked by a puckish energy. Want to hear a free-bop version of the Billy Joel tune “Allentown”? These guys are on it. Why? Because one of the MOPDTK albums contains only songs with the names of Pennsylvania towns in the titles. Of course.

Irabagon’s playing with MOPDTK combines freedom and imagination with rich melodic clarity. On “Can’t Tell Shipp from Shahala” (from the brand new Slippery Rock), for example, the clever mid-tempo theme leads to an improvised duet for tenor sax and trumpet that finds Irabagon moving from circus-like oom-pahs to free jazz squeals to thoughtful counterpoint with a classical sensibility. “Sayre” lets Irabagon “solo” more conventionally, but he is still mixing and matching approaches with aggressive individuality—sounding like Sonny Rollins running chord changes, then John Coltrane playing sheets of sound, then David Murray getting into a series of stuttering rhythmic patterns, all of it melded by a connection to the song’s melodic theme. My favorite kind of Irabagon may be the guy we hear on “Is Granny Spry”: a dervish who seems right on the verge of being out of control on his solo, playing wild swirls that get to the edge of atonality but then pull back with almost magical acrobatic style.

With Mostly Other People Do The Killing, Irabagon seems to be the daredevil’s saxophone player. A man with a mouthpiece and a snowboard, perhaps—a musician who has dabbled in stand-up comedy even. The best word to describe the playing, as long as you have a taste for some musical noisiness, is: FUN.

But that is hardly this man’s only approach. His most sublime playing in 2012 may have been on the impossibly beautiful quintet album by Dave Douglas, Be Still. There, Irabagon is playing with a graceful elasticity that is unfailingly melodic without ever seeming to be simple or clichéd. His solo on the title track is ripe and pungent, and his playing on “God Be with You” does us the favor of cracking with emotion on its highest note. It’s a little, simple moment, and it’s notable that it comes from a musician whose “normal” playing is more expressionistic and broad.

And what do you know: there’s Irabagon on a totally different kind of record that was also one of the best of 2012: guitarist Mary Halvorson’s Bending Bridges. With Halvorson, Irabagon is playing alto in a context that is a tightly controlled kind of chamber jazz but then allows him to cut madly loose on his solos. On “Hemorrhaging Smiles”, for example, he draws on quick runs that have bebop in their DNA in certain moments but then he flares into atonality too, growling and nipping at the drummer. He holds his own against Halvorson’s stinging guitar just fine. Here, a highly emotional player is caught in what seems to be an exuberant but

Irabagon is the guy leaders turn to when they need… just about anything.

Doing Everything As a Leader

On his own albums as a leader, Irabagon works all this territory and more.

Victory in the Monk competition paid for Irabagon to set-up a major label debut, and he chose to record with Stan Getz’s old accompanying trio, led by pianist Kenny Barron. This is not Antic Jon but rather a very sophisticated improviser with a majestic, burnished tone and a way of using his elastic technique to create soaring, clean thrills. The Observer finds Irabagon sweet and keening on the ballads, rich with personality but squarely in a bag that might have been at home on a ’60s Prestige or Blue Note date. The leader plays alto throughout, and when he is joined in the front line by trumpeter Nicholas Payton things are particularly mainstream—tasty but reasonably conventional.

The saxophonist’s regular groups, however, are more likely to seem up-to-date and even “postmodern”: bands that cross boundaries with gleeful, thrilling abandon. The 2012 release by Irabagon’s quintet Outright is called Unhinged, and it is precisely that, but it’s also exact and on the money. “Charles Barkley” is a kooky set of themes—slow, fast, growling and hopping, disconnected. Part of the melodic “head” is unaccompanied tenor sax played in a way I have never ever heard before—Irabagon somehow uses his mouth to make the notes sound like they are being played backwards off a turntable. But the first solo, by trumpeter Ralph Alessi, starts over a straight-ahead uptempo swing that could be from a Jazz Messengers date.

But this record is more than just an inside-outside romp. “Lola Pastillas” starts with some fragmented avant-classical piano, but the next thing you know Jacob Sachs is into a hip montuno and it’s a Latin tune with Irabagon plush in his tone. “Silent Smile” lays in a huge 32-player orchestra and electric organ to produce a shifting texture that slides around with messy beauty. And “Krem2Eek” contrast a perfectly boppish horn line with overdriven fusion guitar and rippling electric piano. And how about his cover of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five”—with the band digging into a heavy and serious meditative sound that would make Coltrane proud, Irabagon blowing with total freedom until the verrrrrry end, where small fragments of the famous melody appear in the shadows.

Unhinged was released on the leader’s own Irabbagast Records and, because the guy is clearly doing whatever he wants to do (both on his horn and as a record producer), he released another disc on the very same day. This second installment of his I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues series is a single track lasting 48 minutes for saxophone, drums, and searing electric guitar. The playing is a complex barrage of sound that—at first blush—sounds like little more than a virtuosic squiggle of loud, patterned notes with a metal aesthetic. But a patient, tolerant ear hears fascinating patterns and reverberations in the screeching guitar of Mick Barr and the rocking clatter of Mike Pride’s drums. Irabagon’s contribution is Olympian in its physical requirements and utter control. For long stretches it can seem as if the tangle of melodies it simply never going to ebb or resolve. But even as the music maintains its screeching for as long as possible, the musicians listen with massive ears and make subtle changes in pattern that reveal themselves over like shadows that pass slowly over a surface. It’s not for everyone’s taste, but it’s daring work.

So, Who Is This Guy, Exactly?

With so many different sounds and ideas moving through the music he makes, maybe it’s fair to ask, Will the real Jon Irabagon please stand up? A Stan Getz fan with a Rahsaan Roland Kirk streak who loves classical counterpoint and avant-garde metal while running his own record label and maintaining a zany sense of humor—you’re going to pin that guy down?

Why should you? Jazz today is the playground of polymaths, and Irabagon is an ideal jazz player for today. He’s steeped in pop music and jazz nerd-dom at once, conservatory schooled but with rough edges when he needs them, a savvy technician on his pair of horns and a free spirit.

Among prior generations of saxophonists he seems like an anomaly. He loves Wayne Shorter and he shares some traits with Joe Lovano, but neither of those titans has half the range of association that Irabagon carries lightly. Among a group containing Chris Potter and Rudresh Mahanthappa he is clearly more at home. But even then, it’s hard to imagine Potter dressing up as a pimp on the cover of one of his albums. For Irabagon that kind of thing is a lark or a goof that can’t come close to confining what he does with his horn.

Jon Irabagon’s career seems headed in ten directions at once. Unity be damned: he’s doing things just perfectly.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.