Today, in an age where media-created young lions are more interested in downloads than down beats, alto saxophonist/composer/bandleader/educator Mike DiRubbo is the real deal. Ever since he arrived in New York two decades ago, DiRubbo has reigned supreme as one of the most durable and dynamic musicians of his generation. That bold statement is augmented by the aural evidence of his work with the brightest jazz stars including Tony Reedus, Larry Willis, Eddie Henderson, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Dwayne Burno, Peter Washington, Carl Allen, John Hicks and Cecil Payne, and as a solo artist, with seven critically-acclaimed CD’s as a leader. DiRubbo has worked in various New York clubs including Smalls, Smoke, 55 Bar, the Kitano, and has also performed in many national and international venues including the Litchfield Jazz Festival, Vizta Jazz in Rio de Janeiro, The Maze in Rio de Janeiro, the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival, the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, the JVC Jazz Festival in NYC and the Jazz, Blues and Videotape festival in Tel Aviv, Ferrara Jazz in Italy, and Ancona Jazz Festival.
On his instrument DiRubbo has it all: from Benny Carter’s mastery of melody, and Johnny Hodges’ ballad mellowtones to Charlie Parker’s light-speed fluency. But what truly sets DiRubbo apart from the rest was his apprenticeship under the legendary alto saxophonist/educator Jackie McLean: the Harlem bebop whiz kid who literally grew up on Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and surged the alto saxophone toward the change of the century with his alto-centric embrace of hard and post-bop, soul jazz and the avant-garde.
DiRubbo fell under McLean’s soulful, swinging spell in his home state of Connecticut, where he was born on July 25, 1970. He first heard the music of the spheres in the fourth grade as a clarinetist, before switching to the alto at the age of twelve. In high school, he performed a life-changing concert with the dynamic Dwike Mitchell/Willie Ruff duo. Buoyed by his performance with the pianist and bassist/French horn virtuoso, the largely self-taught, DiRubbo decided to dedicate himself to playing jazz professionally.
DiRubbo took a giant step toward his goal of becoming a jazz man, taking that fateful one step beyond from his high school to the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz of the Hartt School, University of Hartford, one of the nation’s finest music schools whose distinguished alumni included saxophonists Antoine Roney, Abraham Burton, and drummer and trumpeter Winard and Philip Harper. DiRubbo came under the direct tutelage of McLean – who moved to Connecticut from New York in 1968. Under McLean’s study, DiRubbo learned the music from a true master of the craft: a syncopated soul survivor who performed and recorded with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and recorded a number of memorable albums including, Let Freedom Ring, Jackie’s Bag and New Wine In Old Bottles.
“He dug my sound,” DiRubbo says “I was bare-bones. I had a great sound. I had a good ear. But I didn’t know the language, or the theory [of the music]. But he told me, ‘don’t worry about it, you’ll get all of that stuff together. You remind me of myself when I was your age.’”
McLean formed and finessed DiRubbo’s raw-boned ability into the precision-pulsed, laser-like alto sound that swings the hardest 4/4 number and sings the most poignant ballad. DiRubbo also took instruction with the school’s other esteemed professionals, most notably, pianist Hotep Galeta, bassists Nat Reeves and Rick Rozie and classical saxophonist Ken Radnofsky.
Armed with the Bachelor of Music degree he earned in 1992 – which included studies in the history and tradition of African-American music – DiRubbo emerged from the matrix of academia into the real world: After spending a few years in Connecticut working with fellow Hartt alumnus, trombonist Steve Davis, DiRubbo moved to New York City in 1997; where his musical sword would be forged in the heat emanating from the center of the jazz world. Because of his no-nonsense knowledge of the tradition and his impervious will to swing, DiRubbo quickly made a name for himself as a first call musician of the highest order in the city with Eric Alexander, Joe Farnsworth, David Hazeltine, Brian Lynch, Michael Weiss, John Swana, Ronnie Matthews, Essiet Essiet and Harold Mabern.
DiRubbo can be heard on a number of artist’s CD’s including: trombonist Steve Davis’ eight recordings: The Jaunt; Crossfire; Vibe Up!; Systems Blue; Outlook; Live at Smalls, Images and Gettin’ It Done. His other recorded sideman work includes dates with Mario Pavone, Jim Rotondi, Andrew Adair, Dezron Douglas, Brian Charette, Craig Wuepper, Lauren Sevian and Hiromi Kasuga, and can be heard on the Fresh Sounds, Criss Cross, Double Time Jazz, Steeplechase and Knitting Factory labels.
DiRubbo’s CD’s as a leader include several quintet and quartet dates: From the Inside Out (Sharp Nine Records 1999); Keep Steppin’ (Criss Cross Jazz 2001); Human Spirit (Criss Cross Jazz 2003); New York Accent: Live at the Kitano (Cellar Live 2007) with Mabern; Repercussion (Posi-Tone Records 2009); Chronos (Posi-Tone Records 2011), an organ trio date with Brian Charrette and drummer Rudy Royston and his latest, Four Hands, One Heart (2011) on his new Ksanti Records label, a stunning duet with Fort Apache pianist Larry Willis – who also worked with Jackie McLean.
DiRubbo has been featured in articles, reviews, and interviews in magazines such as Saxophone Journal, Hothouse, Jazz Times, Downbeat, Jazz Journal, Cadence, Swing Journal, Jazz Folio, JazzWise, All Music Guide and All About Jazz.
In addition to being an improviser of the first order, DiRubbo is an active and engaged educator and teaches at several institutions including the Litchfield Jazz Camp, William Paterson University, New York University, Baldwin Wallace University, The New School, Loyola University (New Orleans) and the Jackie McLean Institute.
“I think the fundamentals are very important,” he told Allaboutjazz.com. “Sound and time concept are things that are hard to reverse if not learned properly from the beginning. I try to get the student to use their ear more if they come from a reading or theoretical background or the reverse if they only use their ear.
Mike DiRubbo’s latest quintet features trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, organist/pianist Brian Charette, drummer Rudy Royston, and alternating bassists Ugoma Okewego and Dwayne Burno. No other jazz musician at the change of the century is more poised to write his swinging, sonic signature on the music, than this amazing and enduring artist.” I'm mostly hearing a sound that is closer to a tenor saxophone,” he told Allaboutjazz.com. “I'm trying to keep an open mind and play with musicians on a high level as much as possible.”