Jon Irabagon finds a balance between inside and outside jazz | Bleader

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jon Irabagon finds a balance between inside and outside jazz

Posted By on 07.16.09 at 11:59 AM

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0953/1247764639-jonirabagon.jpgSaxophonist Jon Irabagon, who grew up in Morton Grove and later Gurnee and studied music at DePaul University, has steadily made a name for himself since relocating to New York in 2001 to pursue further studies at the Manhattan School of Music. For the plast few years he’s earned plaudits for his work in the gonzo freebop quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing, and last year he made an impressive debut as a leader with his band Outright! With these projects and as an in-demand sideman he routinely erases the boundaries between hard bop and free jazz, excelling at both approaches.

But his widest notoriety stems from winning the most recent Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, a prestigious annual contest that typically recognizes brilliance in traditional bop-oriented practices, last October. An expert panel— Jane Ira Bloom, Jimmy Heath, Greg Osby, David Sanchez and Wayne Shorter—chose Irabagon, netting him a $20,000 prize and a record deal with mainstream imprint Concord. His Concord debut, The Observer, will be released this fall.

On Thursday Irabagon returns to the Chicago area to play a duo concert of improvised music with manic drummer Mike Pride—a far cry from the playing that earned him the Monk prize. In addition to his wonderful new album with Pride, I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues (Loyal Label), he’s about to record MOPDTK’s fourth album; he’s also set to join trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson in turning guitarist Mary Halvorson’s trio into a quintet on a new recording.

A lot of great people have won the Monk Competition over the years, but most of them play pretty solidly within the tradition. Obviously you can do that, but you also pursue a lot other things, so were you surprised that you won?

JI: Yeah, I wasn’t expecting to even make the semifinals, let alone the finals or winning it. It was a totally scary and weird experience, but it was great. Having five superfamous jazz saxophone players, including Wayne Shorter, who’s one of my biggest idols, sitting there and taking notes and judging the way you play, and comparing it to 11 other people—it was totally weird and artificial and scary. But at the same time it was super fun and it was a great hang. I definitely have spent time learning how to play straight-ahead and in the tradition, but I definitely have some other interests that most of the other people there didn’t necessarily have.

Do you ask yourself what you should do about this? Because it seems like you could make a strong push toward mainstream jazz, although I imagine you’ll continue to do the different kinds of things you have been doing. Did you feel any kind of pressure or weirdness about being thrust into the spotlight and alienating listeners if they hear Mostly Other People Do the Killing or the duo with Mike Pride?

JI: That’s a good question and I’ve thought about it a lot since October. I recorded the record for Concord already, because they want to release it by the next Monk Competition. I recorded it in May before I left for Europe for a month. It’s got my straight-ahead tunes and it’s got [pianist] Kenny Barron, [bassist] Rufus Reid, and [drummer] Victor Lewis on it, and [trumpeter] Nicholas Payton plays on a couple of tracks. It was really interesting for me because after this duo record, which came out in the spring, I had already planned on doing something straight-ahead anyway, and I had met Rufus Reid before and I’d asked him if he wanted to do something and he said yes, so I’m just glad it worked out and that Concord paid for it instead of me having to pay for it out of my pocket. It’s a totally opposite thing and I kind of like the duality of it, and because it’s a different direction it will confuse a lot of people and some people who like the Concord record won’t like the duo record. I’m comfortable with that, but it keeps me interested in doing a bunch of different things and to play with really authentic guys in all of those different areas, so it will help me grow in a bunch of different ways.

Did the label put the band together or did you pick the players?

JI: When we first started talking they wanted standards and to pick the band, but they said I had some say in it. So I told them I wanted to do mostly my tunes and I suggested some possible bands and they said, nope, try again. We went back and forth three or four times, and I said, well, it needs to be a rhythm section that’s played together a lot so it will sound cohesive during the session; we had one day of rehearsal and one day in the studio for ten tunes. We started brainstorming and I mentioned that the Stan Getz rhythm section from the 80s was still around and they’ve played together recently, and the label was all for that.

How was the experience?

JI: It was amazing. Playing with Mike Pride on this duo recording—he’s one of my peers and one of my close friends—and we workshopped for like six months, playing every Wednesday gearing up for this, and the Concord thing was totally the opposite; veterans of really straight-ahead music and me just thrusting my tunes at them and trying to hang on their playing. It was a total learning experience and very far from what I normally do. I usually play with my peers because you can get a lot accomplished that way, you can grow music that way. With this there was a certain goal, a record that needs to be made with certain parameters.

Did Concord want to present you as a kind of fresh-scrubbed star? Like when they signed Taylor Eigsti and Christian Scott they made them look like stars from, I don’t know, the Hills.

JI: When I first realized that I was doing a record for a real label, and they’re going to tell me all this stuff to do, one of the first things I thought of was Chris Potter’s first album for Verve. I bought it and one of the first things you see when you open it up is him in this aviator jacket with this really cool haircut and it’s totally airbrushed. I know Chris and that’s not him at all. I wondered what they were going to make me do, and I kind of hoped they would bring in some makeup artist or make me wear a wifebeater or something. It turned that they waited until the last minute to take pictures and I was going to be in Berlin, so they said that’s great, they had a photographer there and they told me to just wear a suit. That’s kind of boring.

Do you feel like you’ve had new opportunities since you won the competition?

JI: Yeah, I was just in Europe with Mostly Other People for some festivals, and I used the prize money to stay there and to check out some scenes I’d never been to, and I emailed some random clubs and most of them got back to me and totally encouraged me to come and play, and I know that wouldn’t have happened before. People actually listen to my music now, and some musicians here in New York are calling me to play now. It’s weird because I think there are now expectations for what music might be, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens when the Concord record comes out, because even though I had already planned to a straight-ahead record, but we’ll see if people say, “Oh, Jon’s sold out.”

How long were you in Chicago after you finished at DePaul?

JI: Just about a year. I was still developing and I was scared to do the free thing with the Chicago pros. I think slowly but surely I’m going to start meeting up with people—like I’m going to try do some stuff with Jason Stein—because Chicago has all sorts of great music going on and I was only kind of able to take advantage of it when I lived there because I was still not very good and really scared because I wasn’t very good. Even though I’m still not very good I should try to do this.

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