Sunday, August 4, 2013

Catching Up With Down Beat Rising Tenor Saxophone Star Jon Irabagon! Part 2

Continuing on with Part Two of my interview with Jon Irabagon. Part One can be found  at

A great deal of critics and fans are "placing" you in the more minimalist style of player while your solos are incredibly well developed they also make every note count. Wailing just for the sake of wailing doesn't seem to be your bag. How would you describe the creative process that goes into your improvisational work?

J.I. - "Everyone has a voice and a sound that they work towards achieving; for someone like Anthony Braxton, that vision isn't immediately mainstream.  For any of a number of other artists, their visions naturally fit in to what can be marketed easily.  I'm not sure that anyone really chooses where their musical vision naturally lies; someone can definitely try to adjust their vision to fit in (or purposefully not fit in, depending), but over time, if the music someone is playing isn't naturally where they come from, it'll balance out somewhere, sometime. 
Choosing to really follow my heart and my ears has been easier once I came to those realizations.  I've always enjoyed the idea of pushing different genres together and seeing how they mix (or don't mix), and I've always liked the juxtaposition between working on minimalistic or cellular ideas, as well as exploring the Peter Brotzmann or Pharaoh Sanders energy/noise possibilities.  I've always liked listening to different kinds of music as an audience member, so I like playing different kinds of music when I'm a musician as well. 

I've been lucky enough to have met a lot of musicians who also believe in this kind of all-inclusiveness.  With my duo with Mike Pride (I Don't Hear Nothin' but the Blues, Loyal Label, 2009), we took one improvised phrase and extrapolated on it, expanding it out to over 48 minutes.  That first phrase led to a second idea, then a third, and so on, and eventually I would return the original first idea, untainted, and then return to where I was before I started over.  In that way, the original idea spawned other ideas that then became their own ideas that would spawn ideas.  Et cetera. 

After Mike and I played dozens of gigs and sessions working on this concept, I found that it started to seep into my playing in other bands, which was a completely unexpected but welcome addition to how I was trying to improvise in other bands.  This growth helped prompt my next record, Foxy (Hot Cup, 2010), a trio featuring Barry Altschul that is 80 minutes of a continuous solo over a very standard form.  On that, I've put this cellular idea into a mostly-swing based groove, and expanded the length of time that it happens, to see what kinds of interactions would happen with one of my favorite drummers of all time."  

Sort of getting back to your ability to shift gears and play so well within a variety of ensembles, what do you look for when hooking up with an ensemble - creativity or chemistry or both?

J.I. -"Both creativity and chemistry are important when you are playing improvisational music with a group, new or otherwise.  I don't think both have to be there all the time; I've played many successful improv gigs or sessions with a musician or musicians who don't really completely interact with the other musicians around them.  It's more about being able to perceive what's happening around you and deciding what statement you want to make at that time, due to whatever the circumstances are.  If you have a great connection with someone, even if the overall music in the group may not be as good as you want it, you can really focus on that one person and still create some beautiful music."

You recently posted a link to a Wayne Shorter article you did for Down Beat, what other tenor players have impacted you on a similar level and are you constantly searching out new recordings from others in an
effort to learn more about your own playing - I know as a critic people expect me to have heard everything ever released. As a tenor player I'm sure you get alot people expecting you to be hip to some of
the more obscure releases that have never broken that glass ceiling.

J.I. - "Wayne has had a special impact on my conception of tenor saxophone and improvising.  What are further possibilities besides chord changes and playing lines that follow them?  There are extra-musical ideas and philosophies that ultimately help shape what you might play at a particular time, and I'm getting more and more interested in that kind of thing.  A person like Ab Baars continuously surprises me with the things he plays and dares to do on stage. Beyond that, I'm still trying to listen to and absorb as much of the accepted jazz tenor lineage as possible to try to fill some holes I feel are in my playing.  And of course, I try to search out new and different saxophonists to see what might be happening out there in today's music world.  There really is a lot of research and listening to do when you're trying to develop a voice, and that's part of the reason why I love it."