Jon Irabagon – The Observer – Concord Jazz

by | Nov 16, 2009 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Jon Irabagon – The Observer – Concord Jazz CJA-31319-02, 61:49 ****:

(Jon Irabagon – alto saxophone (tenor saxophone on tracks 5 & 7); Nicholas Payton – trumpet (tracks 2 & 8); Kenny Barron – piano (all tracks except track 9); Bertha Hope – piano (track 9); Rufus Reid – bass; Victor Lewis – drums)

Bop and straight-ahead jazz fans wanting to hear a talented saxophonist play fresh-sounding tunes should investigate Jon Irabagon’s Concord debut, The Observer. The album is chiefly a straightforward, ten-track outing that demonstrates Irabagon’s flair for composing receptive jazz tunes and his expressional style that evokes sax influences such as Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley or Wayne Shorter. Naturally, any winner of the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Saxophone Competition is someone to pay attention to. Irabagon’s 2008 triumph – one of his prizes was a contract with the Concord Music Group – puts him in the same category as Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Eric Alexander, Jimmy Greene and Aaron Parks, to name just some previous winners who have become bright stars in the jazz firmament.

Anyone familiar with Irabagon’s prior work with the so-called terrorist be-bop band Mostly Other People Do the Killing may be surprised by what Irabagon delivers on The Observer. Gone, for much of the proceedings, are the sportive eclecticism, brash idealism and unrestrained soloing associated with that Ornette Coleman-inspired quartet. Instead, Irabagon now turns to formalized and timeless music that dwells affirmatively in the mainstream.

And what better fellow musicians to perform with when approaching bop and traditional-minded material than pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Rufus Reid, drummer Victor Lewis, and on two tracks, trumpeter Nicholas Payton? Barron, Reid and Lewis are adept teammates, which was affirmed when they toured as Stan Getz’s onstage rhythm section during part of the ’80s, not to mention their many years of jazz experience and sympathetic professionalism.

Irabagon starts the hour-long set with the solidly rhythmic "January Dream," highlighted by Reid and Lewis’ sturdy support and Barron’s tasty keyboard harmonies. During the amiable mid-tempo opener Irabagon spins out self-assured solo stances, while Barron takes a concise and attentive solo about halfway through. Irabagon’s quick-timed phrasing is also conspicuous and when he briefly turns up the heat listeners might find themselves skipping back and re-listening to give more careful attention.

The contemplative medium-tempo waltz "Acceptance" is another captivating alto sax offering. Irabagon issues gliding and graceful commentary with his sax and displays lyrical phrasing and a consummate control of the instrument’s upper register, which is often earnestly accompanied by Reid’s likeminded bass notes. Irabagon’s lyrical quality is also felt on the balmy bossa nova cut "Makai and Tacoma," which includes one of Irabagon’s best improvisations, intricate Latinized beats (Lewis cuts loose on his drum kit throughout) and a fervent Barron and Irabagon duet. Listening to the piano/sax interaction makes one hope this project won’t be the only time the pianist and sax player exchange notes.

Mentioning interaction, Irabagon has two distinguished guests and their addition is noteworthy. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton sits in during the bright and lightly south of the border track "Joy’s Secrets" and the fiery bop concoction "Big Jim’s Twins." "Joy’s Secret" has a translucent and smooth flavor underscored by Barron’s percussive piano and a closing solo from Payton’s penetrating trumpet. However, the best section that includes Payton is "Big Jim’s Twins," the most dominant trumpet/sax summit. The song commences with a fast-paced Victor Lewis introduction and echoes Art Blakey’s ’60s work. Payton and Irabagon are superb, with Irabagon invoking Charlie Parker at times. The piece climaxes six and a half minutes later with an animated Lewis and Barron going head to head as they push the adrenaline level even higher.

The record’s most poignant moment features pianist Bertha Hope on a heartfelt rendition of moody ballad "Barfly," written by her late husband, Elmo Hope. It is one of three covers that Irabagon performs with skill and aplomb. The piano/sax duet is an intimate extrapolation that discloses mature and potent emotionality, executed in an almost despondent and certainly melancholy approach, similar perhaps to the feeling an unconditional drinker may have at closing hour. While there is a languorous tone overall, upon tangible inspection Irabagon reveals an attenuated sizzle that adds a level of tension.

Irabagon imputes other jazz history with his beautiful interpretation of Gigi Gryce’s "The Infant’s Song," wherein Irabagon recalls Gryce’s innocent-like alto playing. The quartet explores every subtlety, inflection, and blue note of Gryce’s ode to young childhood. Irabagon may not have the definitive version – it is hard to imagine anyone improving on Art Farmer and Gryce’s initial rendering – but Irabagon proves the number should be better known than it is. Why Payton was not included is a mystery, but on his own Irabagon furnishes the ballad a singular reading. Irabagon’s third interpretative statement is Tom McIntosh’s "Cup Bearers," which jazz fans should recognize as it has been formerly recorded by disparate musicians ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to Paul Winter. The cut is an up-tempo burner featuring a steamy bop-based Irabagon sax workout that exhibits his speed-drenched dexterity and the quartet’s equally intense backing.

On the audio/recording side, The Observer is a typically precise effort from Rudy Van Gelder, who lovingly engineered, mixed and mastered the ten tracks in his Englewood Cliffs, NJ studio. It goes without saying that he aptly captures each nuance, from brisk to mild, loud to soft. All told, The Observer is a persuasively intrepid major label debut for a writer and artist who is quickly shifting from emerging sensation to distinctive personality and has the potential to become an important new jazz figure.


1. January Dream
2. Joy’s Secret
3. The Infant’s Song
4. Cup Bearers
5. The Observer
6. Acceptance
7. Makai & Tacoma
8. Big Jim’s Twins
9. Barfly
10. Closing Arguments

— Doug Simpson

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