Saxophonist and Morton Grove native Jon Irabagon heats up | Bleader

Saxophonist and Morton Grove native Jon Irabagon heats up

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Jon Irabagon
  • Bryan Murray
  • Jon Irabagon
Morton Grove native Jon Irabagon, who studied jazz at DePaul University, has become one of the strongest, most flexible, and daring saxophonists at work today. Since he moved to New York in 2001, his playing and reputation have been rising steadily. In recent months he's appeared on a slew of good records—all of which offer plenty of proof of just how good he's become.

As usual, Irabagon gets to strut the full diapason of his abilities and ideas in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the notorious piss-take quartet led by bassist Moppa Elliott that simultaneously celebrates, deconstructs, and mocks the entire history of jazz (the band is rounded out by drummer Kevin Shea and monster trumpeter Peter Evans). In January the group released its fifth studio album, Slippery Rock! (Hot Cup), whose absurd fake liner notes by one Leather Featherweight celebrate what has retroactively become known as smooth jazz. While previous record covers have been meticulous send-ups of classic albums by the likes of Ornette Coleman, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, and Keith Jarrett, this one references the spirit of the plastic 80s, although it makes MOPDTK look like a new-wave act, not a smooth-jazz group. Still, I have to admit I let out a chuckle when I read:

In the early days of jazz—a music born as instrumentalists freed themselves from the restraints of rock and roll—commercial success and artistic exploration were not mutually exclusive terms. Classic early jazz albums such as Breezin' and Mr. Magic topped the charts in a variety of categories while boldly forging a new paradigm in American music: a combination of sonorous sensuality and infectious rhythms. An instrumental art form: Jazz.

The reality is that Slippery Rock! barely delivers on that premise—it pretty much sounds like the quartet's previous albums, where bebop, hard bop, soul jazz, boogaloo, etc, are regularly tweaked. But there are a few tracks that touch on 70s and 80s pop-jazz fusion. According to the press materials, "President Polk" was inspired by the music of Prince and R. Kelly, among other recent R&B stars; the front line's unstinting use of high-pitched sopranino saxophone and piccolo trumpet (it's as if Kenny G were surrounded by an audience sucking on lemons) is pretty hilarious. Its virtuosic high-velocity flutters, extended technique, and acrid tonalities, to say nothing of the clattery rhythm section (especially Shea's overloaded fills and spastic breakdowns), won't allow anyone to confuse this with Kells. Within a wild and woolly romp,"Sayre" hijacks and transforms some smooth jazz cliches—soul-jazz licks were neutered to sonic pabulum—but it feels like neither commentary nor parody.

On one hand I'm relieved that the band didn't mess around with smooth jazz in any significant way, but on the other that might've made this record more interesting. This group has a lot of detractors because they seem to refuse to take themselves—and anything else—very seriously, but while the self-inflicted chaos and mockery has gotten a bit formulaic by now, I still enjoy the music, especially the playing of Irabagon and Evans, whose abilities remain breathtaking. I love hearing them couch intense, radical techniques within accessible, driving tunes and deeply melodic improvisations, even if the frenetic energy and note density sometimes leave me without breath. You can check out "Sayre" below to see if you can find any traces of Bob James or Tom Scott.

But I think Irabagon's best recent work turns up on The 3dom Factor (TUM), a killer new trio album led by the masterful drummer Barry Altschul, with whom the reedist has been working for a few years. He played with Irabagon on the saxophonist's terrific 2010 record, Foxy (Hot Cup)—and like that one, this new recording can't help but reference the classic trio sound of tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. The album, which includes Joe Fonda on bass, revisits some of the drummer's most enduring themes over a lengthy career during which he's moved easily between postbop and free jazz, working with folks like Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers, Ray Anderson, and more. In fact, Altschul has internalized the kind of stylistic range MOPDTK emphasize, but with zero showboating, no seams, and a total absence of attitude. Nonchalantly drawing on whatever part of his arsenal a specific tune or section calls for, Irabagon inhabits the material with ease, whether it's the drummer's durable ballad "Irina," which you can check out below, or his expansive, stop-start groover "Papa's Funkish Dance." It's one of the finest jazz records I've heard this year.

Finally, there's Absolut Zero (Not Two), a fully improvised trio session with the Portuguese rhythm section of bassist Hernani Faustino and drummer Gabriel Ferrandini, recorded in October 2009. In this context Irabagon veers toward abstraction without a hiccup, blazing a trail out of nothing. His partners carve out a rocky, abrasive foundation marked by jagged valleys, frictive drones, and knotty, chaotic flurries. And none of them knock the alto saxophonist off his game, whether he's unleashing cascading lines via circular breathing on the astonishing "Crust" or the keening, balladlike tones he drapes over the fraught, slowly churning lines of Faustino on "Novo," ever-building in intensity and movement until they become a blur. You can check that track out below.

Today's playlist:

Michael Garrick Septet, Black Marigolds (Vocalion)
Anthony Davis, Episteme (Gramavision)
Dionne Warwick, Make Way for Dionne Warwick (Collector's Choice)
Mari Takano, LigAlien: Works by Mari Takano (BIS)
Throbbing Gristle, Throbbing Gristle's Greatest Hits (Industrial)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.

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