Concord Jazz is proud to announce the release of The Observer, saxophonist and composer Jon Irabagon's newest recording as a leader. Winning the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition has afforded Irabagon the opportunity to assemble a dream-team of musicians, including the stellar rhythm section of pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Victor Lewis. This combo of familiar players is augmented by extraordinary trumpeter Nicholas Payton on two tracks, while pianist Bertha Hope provides gorgeous accompaniment to one of her late husband, Elmo Hope's compositions. Along with veteran producer Don Sickler and engineering wizard Rudy Van Gelder, Irabagon and company have crafted a statement of power and beauty replete with twists and turns, a diverse but cohesive collection sure to please jazz aficionados and new fans alike.
Irabagon is no stranger to the recording studio, and his musical horizons are broad. His first album as leader, Outright!, was released last year by Innova; other projects include a duo of free improvisation with drummer Mike Pride called I Don't Hear Nothin' But the Blues and his long-time tenure with the post-bop rebels Mostly Other People Do the Killing, whose take on Billy Joel's "Allentown" is only partially tongue-in-cheek. "I'm a child of the 1980s," laughs Irabagon. "I grew up absorbing all kinds of music, from easy-listening to country, and pop on the radio; I just took it all in." The Illinois native of Filipino descent began on piano, then played saxophone in middle school and high school band, but only as he prepared to enter DePaul University did he begin a serious study of jazz. "I'd always been interested in the act of performing music, but I developed a real and gradually deepening curiosity about what makes it tick, the elements involved in crafting a successful composition." He also became interested in the mechanics of soloing, immersing himself in the joyful intrigue of soloists like Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderley, beginning to crystallize his precise and uniquely swinging approach to the alto saxophone.
Irabagon's 2001 move to New York City, his current home, precipitated intense musical growth. His graduate work at the Manhattan School of Music and his post-graduate studies at Juilliard, where he received an Artist Diploma, brought him into contact with many musicians and styles that would broaden his scope as an artist. "The beautiful thing about living in New York is that many people have very definite ideas about where they're going in terms of improvisation, not just in terms of jazz. Many types of music are represented; many of the students I met at Juilliard have been very influential on my playing and composing, and well as musicians that I have met at The Stone or Tonic."
While The Observer is comprised of compositions that are clearly rooted in the melodies and harmonies of jazz's myriad and long-nourished traditions, they are treated with a liberal helping of Irabagon's open-eared eclecticism. Much of the intrigue generated by such an approach results from his decisive but malleable playing style. His sound blends the relaxed and loping ease of Adderley with the bold and up-front precision of Wayne Shorter's tone, but he shows no trepidation about launching into the occasional multiphonic passage in the manner of John Coltrane or Anthony Braxton. These traits, in tandem with his sparing and flexible vibrato, enable him to invoke multiple eras of jazz history in a few gestures. Sample his solo on "Makai and Tacoma," conjuring breezy shades of Stan Getz bossa nova while also employing the chromatic languages developed by preceding and succeeding generations. Reaching just beyond the upper range of his instrument, his strident but controlled forays into the stratosphere are endearing and well-executed, often raising the energy level to a boiling point. By contrast, the closing track "Closing Arguments" finds him in a soulful mode, each note of his solo imbued with disarming pathos. Irabagon can bend a note in a way that pays tribute to the finest vocalists, encapsulating the depths of human feeling and expression as he hovers just above or below an achingly held tone.
Irabagon's compositions inhabit similarly diverse worlds, all fully realized by the seasoned rhythm section. The album's opener, "January Dream," swings with deceptive simplicity over a series of beautifully juxtaposed harmonies. "I woke up one morning," he explains, "and there was this tune in my head. I thought I'd heard it somewhere, but the more and more I looked, I realized it was mine." Barron, Reid and Lewis bring the post-bop structure to life, each finding just the right voicings and rhythmic accentuations to keep the often-syncopated groove fresh. The same is true for the title track, whose punchy and disjunct melody owes a debt to Eric Dolphy. At the other extreme, "Joy's Secret" is a rollicking up-tempo dedication to Irabagon's sister. "Joy is her name, and the tune is also meant to express joy as an emotive state, which is a major component of her personality. Indeed, there is a sense of wonder as the head moves mysteriously but infectiously along its harmonically complex track. The neo-Mingusian changes are carried forward by Lewis' timbrally lavish Latin groove, Reid's airily hip punctuations and Barron's lush sonorities.
"It's a dream come true to play with these guys," Irabagon smiles. "I wanted a rhythm section that had collaborated before, and Rufus, Kenny and Victor seemed like natural choices." The multivalent historical allusions are also fostered by the full-bodied trumpet work of Nicholas Payton, making one of his two appearances. The other is on the burning "Big Jim's Twins," a running jump into Cookin' era Miles mode, the melody gorgeously laid out in thirds. Again, Payton's controlled fire brings added vitality to an already inspired track, his solo combining the fluidity and lyricism of Clifford Brown with Miles' perfect timing and pithy phrasing.
Amidst the originals, Irabagon has chosen to pay tribute to several composers that he feels have not received proper recognition. Elmo Hope's "Barfly" takes the form of a ravishing duet, performed with Bertha Hope. "I played in Don Sickler's Elmo Hope Tribute sextet at Jazz Standard, and I had the privilege of doing ‘Barfly' as my ballad feature. Playing it with Bertha is absolutely magical; her harmonies keep me on my toes, and she's simply an amazing musician." "Cup Bearers" is by NEA Jazz Master trombonist/composer Tom McIntosh, and Kenny Barron recorded the tune toward the beginning of his career. "Rufus and Victor also knew the tune; they didn't even need any charts," explains Irabagon. The final tribute is Gigi Gryce's wistful "Infant Song," which features a stunning duet between Reid and Irabagon as well as a fleet-footed cadenza for alto saxophone near the piece's conclusion. "I needed a ballad, and this one is underrecorded; it really should be more widely heard." The composition could not have better advocacy, Irabagon's treatment exuding strength and tenderness in equal proportion.
Rudy Van Gelder's recording fully justifies his status as one of the finest engineers active today, still going strong after more than fifty years. Barron's pianism in particular benefits from a wide soundstage, and it is almost as if the piano is laid out before the listener. Each note Barron plays is captured with crystalline clarity, most notably in the ballads, where his trademark voicings are rendered positively angelic. Reid's huge sound is also faithfully represented, the lows and highs in each note and harmony he plays being remarkably present. Lewis' drums stand stark against the backdrop of Barron and Reid's rich sonorities, his cymbals especially clear and forward in the mix. The subtleties of Van Gelder's recordings mirror those pervading the music, making The Observer a success on all levels.