Blowing his mind

Reedman Jon Irabagon believes in letting it all hang out.

Jon Irabagon (photo credit: BRYAN MURRAY)
Jon Irabagon
(photo credit: BRYAN MURRAY)
If you want adventure, rather than some cozy, affirming entertainment, Jon Irabagon is your man. Not that the 36-year-old Chicago-born jazz saxophonist doesn’t want you to get your money’s worth at one of his gigs, but his shows tend to keep one’s pulse racing and attention focused, while offering several toe-tapping slots en route.
Irabagon will open his fascinating box of musical tricks at the Levontin 7 club in Tel Aviv on Sunday and Monday (both 8 p.m.), alongside a couple of heavyweight collaborators in the form of bassist Mark Helias and drummer Barry Altschul.
Together, they make up the Foxy Trio, which has been doing sterling creative work together for two or three years now, although Irabagon and 73-year-old Altschul have been pushing the boat out together since just before the release of Foxy, in 2010, which also featured Peter Brendler on bass.
On Irabagon’s own admission, Foxy received “mixed reviews,” but it opened the door to the current lineup, which was also something of a welcome package deal.
“I had been wanting to play with Mark Helias my whole life, and I realized that Barry and Mark had a really long history of playing together. So I got together with Mark and we started playing together. So this version of the trio has been together for three or four years.”
It is primarily Irabagon’s baby, although the youngest member of the band says he gets plenty of added value from Helias and Altschul.
“It’s more a vehicle for my original compositions, and trying to write compositions for people of Barry and Mark’s stature, and history and experience.”
That, says the reedman, offers him an expansive exploratory palette to work from.
“It can vary from drawing from standards to also being completely free, and trying to find a way to compose in all of those different forms.”
If you are going to throw caution to the wind and just lay it out there, it can help to have a robust infrastructure from which to take flight. Hence, joining forces with a bass player and drummer who had previously accrued plenty of collaborative time together must have been a boon for Irabagon. The saxophonist says he took on some invaluable and weighty baggage as a result of the trio hook-up, and not just in terms of their musical expertise.
“I really enjoy playing with them because not only do they have so much experience together as a rhythm section, they also have so much experience playing with the giants of music. Some of the most valuable time I have with the trio – in addition, of course, being on stage with them – we have travel time, on planes and trains, and [I] hear their stories about [free jazz saxophonist] Dewey Redman and [keyboardist] Chick Corea and [free jazz saxophonist] Anthony Braxton and those guys. Studentwise, it’s just an irreplaceable experience to hear these stories.”
Irabagon also feels fortunate to come from the Windy City, which not only has been the home base for some giants of the jazz fraternity over the past century or so, but was also known as the epicenter of the blues outside New Orleans. The saxman says he took on a lot of those vibes in his formative years.
“I grew up surrounded by that music,” he recalls. “I used to go to the Chicago Jazz Festival and the Chicago Blues Festival.
My first five or six years of professional gigs were in Chicago which is a beautiful place. It’s a gigantic city and there’s tons of music and different varieties of music because of that. I tried to learn all those different styles and work in them. And there’s such a history of important saxophone players from Chicago.”
That includes towering figures such as Von Freeman and Fred Anderson.
“Von Freeman had such a special tenor saxophone voice. I think Chicago definitely had an influence on how I came up in terms of my music,” says Irabagon. “My friends and I used to go to [Anderson’s Chicago jazz club] the Velvet Lounge and join in jam sessions there. And there was [free jazz saxophonist] Ken Vandermark. They were all important for me.”
Irabagon rapidly built up a good gigging head of steam as a youngster.
His first appearance on stage was with a bunch of amateur players who earned their crusts in very different areas of expertise.
“I was trying to learn tunes and trying to find a way to make them work, and I got a gig with these doctors, dentists and gynecologists after their saxophone player decided to stop playing for a while. We played some gigs together, and I learned a lot from those guys. They weren’t playing to pay their rent, they were trying to make the best music they could. It was a good learning experience for me.”
After five or six years of honing his craft in Chicago, Irabagon relocated to New York where he began studying with saxophonist Dick Oatts at the Manhattan School of Music. Being in the Big Apple also, naturally, offered the young reedman numerous opportunities for creative synergies and he took full advantage of that. He made incremental artistic strides and, in 2008, won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition. He has also made forays into a wide spread of musical areas, even flirting for a while with the idea of becoming a classical saxophonist, and working with indie rock bands and a Portuguese outfit which played Latin jazz.
Today, he divides his working hours between the Foxy Trio, free-flowing quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing and guitarist Mary Halvorson’s quintet, and enjoys fruitful collaborations with a slew of front-grid trumpeters, such as Tom Harrell, Dave Douglas and Ralph Alessi.
“I feel the more experience you have, that will eventually lead to some kind of synthesis that will help your music,” notes Irabagon.
The Levontin 7 audiences can look forward to an enriching, mind widening and thoroughly entertaining time next week.
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