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Yesterday Chicago native and DePaul University graduate Jon Irabagon was announced as the winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, perhaps the highest-profile jazz competition in the U.S. The judges included heavies Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Greg Osby, Jane Ira Bloom, and David Sanchez. Irabagon will receive a $20,000 prize and a contract with Concord Records.
While the saxophonist certainly has a handle on the fundamentals of jazz and an intimate knowledge of the tradition, he's also demonstrated a far more daring sensibility than most previous winners. Irabagon is a member of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the irreverent quartet I blogged about last week (though I didn't mention him in the post), and earlier this year he released his first album as a leader, Jon Irabagon’s Outright! (Innova). In this impressive postbop outing, Irabagon and his excellent band--trumpeter Russ Johnson, pianist Kris Davis, bassist Eivind Opsvik, and drummer Jeff Davis--pull back from the absurdist mayhem of MOPDTK, couching heady, rigorous improvisation in elaborate compositions that shake loose from the usual theme-solos-theme structure.
On "Quorum Call" Irabagon blows fiery, post-Evan Parker sound sheets against a backdrop that snaps from chaos to tightly charted changes and back, augmented by wild, cross-cutting electronic beats and textures from guest Chris Cash. "That Was Then," with its scorching electric-guitar solos from guest Jesse Lewis, is plangent jazz-rock pushed to dizzying heights by a wordless vocal chorus. And that's just a taste of the album's range: the group also offers a relatively straight reading of the Dizzy Gillespie bebop staple "Groovin" High," and on "Outright! Theme" two dozen extra players drive a New Orleans-themed original straight through the gates of free-jazz hell. I'm very curious to hear where Irabagon goes from here.