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Monk Institute Saxophone Competition

Jon Irabagon performs with Dee Dee Bridgewater; Oct. 26, 2008, Los Angeles

“Bipolar” was the word that came to mind during the Thelonious Monk Institute’s International Jazz Saxophone Competition in Los Angeles the weekend of Oct. 25-26. Not in the clinical sense, but in the frequent mood swings-and swinging moods-that took place over the course of the semi-finals and the finals. As a matter of fact, a manufactured word such as “multi-polar” might be an even more accurate descriptor.

In the broadest sense, the structure of the competition itself set the stage for a wide range of responses. Start with Saturday afternoon, which was devoted to the semi-finals. Staged at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, a 500-seater that does double duty as a concert venue and a lecture hall, it featured a long program of performances by the 12 finalists. Each played three numbers, with the choices reaching across the entire gamut of jazz expression: standards, blues and pop tunes, done fast, medium and slow, with backing or as wide-open solos. Facilitating it all required extraordinarily versatile accompaniment, and pianist Geoffrey Keezer, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen provided it in stellar fashion.

In sheer numbers alone, listening to 12 consecutive saxophone sets might seem to be a lengthy way to spend a weekend afternoon, but the diversity of styles made for a day filled with intriguing musical surprises, especially since the players came from across the globe: Gian Tornatore from Sacramento; Evan Schwam and David DeJesus from New York City; Gilad Ronen from Israel; Jon Irabagon from Chicago; Troy Roberts from Australia; Joris Roelofs from France; Walter Smith and Quamon Fowler from Texas; Jason Marshall and Tim Green from Maryland and Alex Hoffman from Washington, D.C.

In a conversation during one of the breaks, Thelonious Monk Jr. pointed out the raising of the skill bar that had taken place over the course of the competition’s two decades. And he was right. Technical facility, sometimes reaching the level of sheer virtuosity, was a given. Every player had fast fingers. But more importantly, there was a level of maturity, especially apparent in the ballad playing, suggesting that an emerging generation of jazz artists is beginning to incorporate technique into richer, deeper improvisational perspectives.

The selection of alto saxophonists Irabagon and Green and tenor saxophonist Fowler as the finalists was not especially surprising, although many in the audience thought that Ronen could easily have been included. It was hard to argue, however, with a panel of saxophonist judges-Jane Ira Bloom, Jimmy Heath, Greg Osby, David Sanchez and Wayne Shorter-with impeccable credentials.

The Sunday event was actually part-competition, part-gala fundraiser. Scheduled to start at 5 p.m. Los Angeles time, the considerable number of empty seats may well have been due to the simultaneous start of the fourth game of the World Series. Or it may have had something to do with the multi-polar quality of the evening, which began with the finals of the competition and ended with a fundraising tribute to B.B. King titled “The Blues and Jazz: Two American Classics.”

Each of the finalists had the opportunity to do a number of their choice, followed by a duet with the always-dynamic Dee Dee Bridgewater. Irabagon’s rendering of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was a stunningly confident use of the complete range of alto saxophone styles. Whispers of Johnny Hodges slipped into arching bebop licks, followed by airy, wide-open free expressionism, all of it filtered through Irabagon’s vivid musical imagination. And when he dueted with Bridgewater, other sides of his talent emerged-hard driving, humorous, empathically interactive.

Green moved from a Monk tune to a duet with Bridgewater on “There Is No Greater Love.” But the adventurousness of his semi-final playing, in which his out-of-the-box style had marked him as a strong candidate for the top prize, seemed tempered by a more cautious quality. Green’s a player to watch, nonetheless, fully capable of emerging as yet another of the artists who have used a second or third place finish in the Monk competition as a springboard to outstanding careers.

The same can be said of Fowler. Like Irabagon, he brought a panoply of jazz history to his playing. Like Green, he often ventured into envelope-stretching areas as well. And, uniquely his own, his stage appearance-tall and lanky, with long dreadlocks and a charismatic manner-will serve him well in an entertainment world that increasingly demands attractive visual presentation.

The competition finals completed, with the winner to be announced later in the show, the performance moved into its fundraising segment. Awards were given to businessman Paul D. Allen and B.B. King, with Billy Dee Williams, Quincy Jones, Don Cheadle, Herbie Hancock and Monk Jr. as emcees. Although jazz was relegated to a small corner of the programming, there was no arguing with the quality of the blues artists traversing the stage. Keb’ Mo’, Joe Louis Walker and Robert Cray convincingly opened up the music’s deepest roots. Kevin Eubanks’ startling take on “Red House” revived the spirit and the soul of Jimi Hendrix. Bridgewater and Cassandra Wilson offered two distinct but equally compelling takes on vocal blues.

Jazz surfaced from time to time in performances by a Monk Institute-supported high-school ensemble, as well as a number by the impressive young players in the Institute’s current classes at Loyola University New Orleans. Other high-visibility jazz icons-Hancock, John Patitucci, Terri Lyne Carrington, George Duke, Poncho Sanchez, Jimmy Heath, Lee Ritenour-turned up at various times, notably during a romp through Monk’s classic blues, “Straight, No Chaser.”

The evening climaxed with a pop music spotlight on the ticket-selling stars of the evening, U2’s Bono and the Edge. Serenading King with a high-spirited “When Love Comes to Town,” they were clearly the draw that had nearly managed to fill the Kodak Theatre.

Irabagon, a Filipino-American, was finally introduced as the winner of the 2008 Monk competition, with Green and Fowler coming in second and third, respectively. His first place prize was a $20,000 scholarship and a recording contract with the Concord Music Group. The announcement almost seemed anti-climactic in the midst of the various pop and blues headliners. But ultimately, it was what this competition-and every Monk competition-is really about: finding the best new talent, showcasing it and giving it the ramp up to the visibility it deserves. Irabagon already has released a CD under his own name, Outright!, and performs with the group Mostly Other People Do the Killing. But with the Monk competition prize and the recording contract in his résumé, his career as a potentially important new jazz figure is well on its way.

Originally Published