On a March evening at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village, the alto saxophonist Sherman Irby, wearing a charcoal suit, was unfurling a lithe solo over the rumbling chords of McCoy Tyner. Irby was situated center stage on a waist-high stool, but rather than face the audience, he sat in profile, looking away from the crowd and directly at the John Coltrane Quartet alumnus, now nearly 80. What seemed at first glance like a subtle act of defiance against the conventions of showmanship was really, it soon appeared, a gesture of deference to the eminent pianist before him.
“You can’t get closer to Trane than that,” Irby tells me at the Blue Note, a couple of hours before going onstage. He’s recently been performing with Tyner at the club about one Monday a month.
Irby is a man who respects his elders. He spends most of his time as the lead alto saxophonist in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, where he’s had a seat since 2005. The orchestra’s somewhat pedagogical approach to music suits Irby, a traditionalist of sorts whose appreciation for the past is pronounced in his sweet, longing tone, which recalls Cannonball Adderley. (In 2009, Irby even released the tribute album Work Song: Dear Cannonball.)
At this point in his career, however, Irby, an avuncular 50-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard, can be counted as something of an eminence too—if a lesser-known one than Tyner and his legendary cohort. Over the past couple of decades, Irby has established himself as a sort of ballast in the jazz world, his style and process an embodiment of slow refinement.
Since the mid-to-late ’90s, he’s released a steady stream of self-assured records, and he’s performed with such stalwarts as Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts and the late Elvin Jones. “He’s like a throwback to the way the older musicians used to play,” says the drummer Willie Jones III, who has known Irby for decades. “He has that feeling.”
Not that Irby sees it that way. He presents himself as a perpetual student of the jazz tradition and, more broadly, history as a whole. “I want to do something I can learn something from,” Irby says with characteristic modesty.
That desire occasionally extends beyond jazz. About six years ago, he interpreted Dante’s Inferno, in a piece commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Irby had originally wanted to take on the German-American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, whose work on life cycles he was reading at the time. But he gravitated toward Dante, in part because his iconoclasm reminded him of Charlie Parker; the poet changed the Italian language forever, but was highly controversial in his time, to the point of exile. “He was like a jazz musician,” Irby says.
“I had to go through my own demons. To see his process, he put it all out there, almost like Van Gogh painting himself every day,” Irby says of Dante’s fastidious approach. “He put the things he was going through all through that piece. And I was able to learn something from that.”
Reared in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Irby made his way in the late 1980s to Atlanta, which at the time supported a robust jazz scene, including such musicians as the guitarist Russell Malone, the bassist Tarus Mateen and the pianist Johnny O’Neal. “It was booming,” Irby recalls nostalgically. He started gigging at night, and made ends meet by working as a fry cook at a restaurant called Fish in the Pocket. Money was tight, but he was learning a lot, making long-lasting connections and preparing himself for his eventual migration to New York.
Before going north, though, Irby worked the cruise ship circuit, floating mostly around the Caribbean on a Carnival liner called the Fantasy. Playing on a boat for two and a half years wasn’t so much an act of wanderlust, Irby says, or even a day job, but a means to refine his craft. After playing show tunes in the house orchestra each evening, Irby would practice for hours in the dark, vacant ballroom, writing music and transcribing tunes. “I actually wrote my own fake book,” Irby tells me.
At a certain point, having exhausted his sea legs, Irby was ready to make the jump to the big show. In 1994 he moved to New York with $1,600 to his name and ended up settling for a time in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene—one block away from bassist Bill Lee, father of filmmaker Spike. But he spent nearly all of his waking hours in Manhattan, particularly at Smalls, the basement jazz club that fostered a hugely influential generation of musicians during the ’90s (and continues to be a proving ground).
Smalls was where Irby was discovered by a talent scout at Blue Note Records, which put out his first two records—soulful affairs titled Full Circle, from 1997, and Big Mama’s Biscuits, released the following year. It was also where Wynton Marsalis occasionally hung out, looking for fresh blood to enlist in his fledgling big band at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Irby joined the band in 1995 and stayed for two years before joining Hargrove’s quintet for three years—a tenure he remembers as one of the most enlivening experiences of his professional life. “The energy would be so high that sometimes we’d start crying walking off the bandstand,” Irby says. “Seriously.”
But Irby still felt he had much to learn in his development as a musician, so he left his steady gig with Hargrove to pursue a solo career with intention. Working as a kind of musical factotum, he founded his own record label, Black Warrior, through which he has released about half a dozen titles. Working with the saxophonist Don Braden, he helped compose music for Fatherhood, an animated series co-created by Bill Cosby. He learned video editing and mastered the art of home recording—a skill he put to use while in Italy, when he taped a show at the now-defunct Otto Jazz Club, in Naples, and put it out on his label. “Reading manuals,” Irby recalls, “was a typical thing for people to see me do.”
Jazz musicians are autodidacts by nature, but Irby’s curiosity stands out for its fervor and strikingly wide range. And even since returning to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 2005, Irby is still quite industrious. His most recent album, Cerulean Canvas, was released last year and features his group Momentum, with the trombonist Vincent Gardner, the pianist Eric Reed, the bassist Gerald Cannon and Willie Jones III. It’s a cool-tempered postbop record, satisfyingly funky. Irby takes a number of brisk, finely stated solos, but for the most part he seems more intent on creating a mood using the whole band. The album sounds like something Lee Morgan or Freddie Hubbard or perhaps even Herbie Hancock might have put out in the mid-1960s, as if Irby were—happily—unconcerned with all the mutations jazz has gone through since.
When not engaged in bandleading or his JLCO duties, he continues to gig on the side. “He has an open invitation to play with my band,” says the trombonist Papo Vazquez, who leads the Mighty Pirates Troubadours, an Afro-Latin outfit. “And he’s one of the few musicians who has that privilege in my circle.”
But having played with Wynton Marsalis for 13 straight years seems to have given Irby, who now lives with his family in Warren, N.J., a good dose of awe for the past. Benny Goodman, for instance, whom Irby says he never much liked but whose music the orchestra plays, is a current source of inspiration.
Irby says he is working on the second installment of his Dante piece, in which he is interpreting the entirety of the Divine Comedy. Though he wouldn’t say much about the tribute, his goal is to unveil it in 2021, which will, as it happens, coincide with the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death.
Aside from that, Irby is thinking about putting together a nine- or 10-piece band to play his original music. But he hasn’t yet worked out what exactly the instrumentation will look like or what kind of music he’d like to play; it’s still a few years down the line. He says he recently bought a few new books to help him make sense of the project, including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith’s Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution and Terence Dickinson’s Hubble’s Universe. “I’m still working on the concept,” Irby tells me. “I have to study.”