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Jon Irabagon on Mahjong and Mezzo-Soprano Sax

The saxophonist explores two fascinating paths on his latest album

Jon Irabagon
Jon Irabagon (photo: Bryan Murray)

The Chinese game of mahjong may have been invented by Confucius more than 2,000 years ago or, possibly, sometime in the past few hundred years. What’s indisputable is that it found its way to America in the 20th century. Among those who played it avidly were the Chicago-based relatives of a young Filipino-American boy named Jon Irabagon. The sounds and sights of the players shuffling the colorful mahjong tiles made an indelible impression on the boy, who would later become a saxophonist and composer of considerable merit. Now 40, he’s devoted half of his new two-disc release, Invisible Horizon (the seventh album of his own music on his Irabbagast Records), to a suite largely inspired by the game. The other half is a different story altogether—sort of.

“Growing up, it was just there all the time,” Irabagon says about mahjong. “Whenever we’d go to parties and family gatherings, you’d hear those tiles clashing in the background. I said, ‘If Grandma’s going to play this every day, and my aunts are going to play this every weekend, I want to try to learn what’s going on so I can hang with them.’ It actually was more fun for me hearing the stories than sitting and playing the game.”

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Jeff Tamarkin

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Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.