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Jon Irabagon, Eclectic Warrior

A remarkably versatile and consistently compelling saxophonist

Jon Irabagon performs with Dee Dee Bridgewater; Oct. 26, 2008, Los Angeles
Mostly Other People Do the Killing, backstage at 2011 Newport Jazz Festival

Let us, for the sake of argument, consider six CDs, all recorded in a six-month period of 2011-2012, all featuring a tenor saxophonist. Dave Douglas’ Be Still contains jazz interpretations of traditional hymns and folksongs, and the tenor solos are straightforward, vivid and concise. On Douglas’ follow-up to Be Still, Time Travel, the edgy tenor player is a little outside the pocket. Barry Altschul’s The 3dom Factor has an exhilarating, prodigious, volatile tenor player. (Carla Bley’s “Ictus” is always fast, but not this fast.) On Slippery Rock, by Mostly Other People Do the Killing (MOPDtK), the tenor player is a performance artist, a virtuoso of musical lunacy. Unhinged, by Jon Irabagon’s Outright!, is state-of-the-art postmodern small-ensemble creative music, with compelling contributions from everyone, including the tenor player. Irabagon’s I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues, Volume 2: Appalachian Haze is a true lease-breaker. In its 48 minutes of unrelieved, outrageous uproar, the tenor player makes Albert Ayler sound like Scott Hamilton.

Actually, Irabagon is the tenor player on all six albums. His extraordinary eclecticism is meaningful only because of his exemplary execution. His saxophone sound is always clarion and clean, and his ideas are hard and clear and fresh within their respective genres. “The great thing about Jon is that when he encounters a new or unfamiliar situation he doesn’t retreat,” says trumpeter Douglas. “He plays a lot of different ways, searching for the tone that best suits that moment. And because he has such a broad vocabulary, he is able to come back to it with a new solution and a new feeling every time. Jon’s records may seem like they skitter crazily among styles and approaches. It seemed like that to me too. That’s why I hired him.”

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