Multi-sax musician Jon Irabagon riffs off the oddities and calliope-gone-awry quality of a circus in his latest CD, “Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics.” As front man for his quartet, Irabagon provides a fresh glimpse at recombining rhythms and stretching the definition of harmony.
Speedy and tense with clashing seconds and other dissonances, “The Bo’Ness Monster” is fearsome and exciting at the same time. “Emotional Physics/The Things” serves up an intricate rhythm, forced stops and starts, and a rapid-fire explosion of ideas. His stark solo launches “The Demon Barber of Fleet Week” with tongue effects and a skittering up and down the scale. Flipping to the softer side, there’s mystery and a subtly ringing sustain on piano in “Pretty Like North Dakota.” There’s drag and coolth on “Tapei Personality,” a song that just makes ya feel so hip.
It’s a thrilling mix on this album, because of the songs’ unpredictability and rare approach.
When did you pick up the sax?
The middle school I went to had a show-and-tell with instruments in fourth grade, and we had the opportunity to join band in the fifth grade. I thought trumpet would be a good instrument but there were too many people who chose it, so the teachers told me to check out the woodwinds. I guess I liked the shiny brass so the saxophone was the compromise.
The moment you fell in love with jazz?
I fell in love with the sounds, feelings and expression of jazz through Cannonball Adderley. The joy and love in his playing can be found in his tone, vocabulary, articulation, song choice and even his stage banter.
Though everyone has their own story to tell with their own philosophies and outlook on life, Cannonball’s effervescence and joie de vivre showed me that these individual stories can be told through music, and more specifically, improvisation.
What saxes do you own, and which is your favorite?
I play tenor, alto, mezzo soprano, soprano, sopranino and slide saxophones. I love the possibilities with each one; each different horn is its own universe with different voices and different tendencies.
It has been an absolute adventure trying to get inside each one of them and finding my own directions with those different tendencies as guides. I’ve put out a solo sopranino saxophone record, which I worked on constantly for upwards of a year. I’m proud as well as surprised at the results.
I’ve finished a solo mezzo soprano record also. It’s coming out in a few months. That instrument takes me into many different spaces than the ‘nino. I’m starting to think about a solo slide saxophone record as well, but who knows what that might turn out to be!
What did you enjoy most about being the recipient of the French-American Cultural Exchange grant?
I’ve been friends with Sylvain Rifflet for over twenty years now, so it was incredible to spend serious time working with him day after day to get the music of Moondog (who is fascinating!) arranged to our liking. It was also eye-opening to be able to jump into a Parisian scene and meet and play with many musicians there.
Music truly is a bridge between cultures and if everyone learned to play music with one another, there would be no wars.
Your CD “Behind the Sky” came out right before “Quixotic.” You’re on a writing jag?
You have to continue to follow your muse, and if she is leading you to new music, it’s your duty to follow it and get it out into the world. It also helps that the band on “Behind the Sky” is a working group and that every member is a good friend.
One of the balances I like to work out as a leader is a combination of ease of playing but also challenging the rhythm section so they don’t get bored or complacent. The new music is a result of wanting to write more intricate compositions in addition to seeing where this group can go next.
What do you like best about that CD?
“Behind the Sky” has a special place for me; it was written during and after a period of intense mourning and self-reflection. The joy and life that comes out from that recording is truly the result of living life and persevering. Love does in fact win. That whole record is a celebration of love and life, and it’s my one record as a leader which explores that angle exclusively.
How long did it take your current personnel to mesh?
This band is made of up good friends. We have all traveled together extensively as sidemen in each other’s groups and in other ensembles. We all share love and respect for the jazz tradition as a whole, but use it only semi-dogmatically, which is important to me.
As this group continues to evolve and expand, I plan on writing freer music to see how this commonality can grow and change.
What are your favorite clubs to play in Europe?
There are many great places to play in Europe, with so many hardcore audiences and true devotees of the music. I really love performing at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, Porgy and Bess in Vienna, and Bunker Ulmenwall in Bielefeld, Germany. There are many more great places, but those really stand out to me every time I perform there.
Also, the first European festival I performed that really changed my whole world view was the Moers Festival; I’ve had the pleasure of performing there several times and truly love the history and attitude there.
Where would you most like to perform?
It is always fascinating to perform in new places, new venues or for new series with different angles. I’m trying to write different styles of music and with different instrumentations. Hopefully this can lead to being able to perform around the world.
Do you feel you have an inherent advantage in the music industry since you live in NYC?
There does come a certain automatic respect around the world if you say that you are a musician from NYC. However, I have met world-class musicians from every tiny corner of the world, and not every musician in NYC has much to say.
It’s been a great experience learning from people in NYC, but I wouldn’t say it’s inherent or given.
Why did you start your own record label?
I started my own label back in 2012, mainly to release my own music with absolutely zero compromises. I had had some… interesting… experiences on other labels before, both major and independent, and the results of those were mixed. Because of that, I wanted to release my own music exactly how I envisioned it, and I haven’t looked back since. There are of course some things that are more difficult when you release your own recordings, but overall I’m glad I took the chance.
There’s whimsy in the name of your new CD, “Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics.” Intended?
Definitely. With this record, I envisioned this group, which has done several tours over the years, as a traveling circus show, performing far and wide and mystifying audiences with their high wire antics. That initial idea grew and led to the compositions as well as the artwork.
I wanted to celebrate the skills of each of these players and take a step back to really admire how much individuality and magic each of them provides.
When will it be released?
“Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics” drops on May 15th, 2018, on Irabbagast Records. We are performing at Smalls in NYC on August 8th as a CD release show of sorts, and we have a European tour planned for the fall.
What’s the biggest surprise in making this CD?
We actually recorded this album in the middle of a tour in South America. It was incredible to see these musicians learn, assimilate, grow and figure out their own way through the compositions while on tour, and the record was made at the height of that process. I am proud to have an album coming out that documents that exact stage of the process.
Why did you specifically want Tim Hagans on trumpet for the album?
I have been a fan of Tim’s since I got into jazz in the ’90s. His inventiveness, sense of humor and free thinking come across with every note and project he’s part of. He hasn’t been as visible in recent years as he deserves, so I wanted to help reintroduce him to people. He fits in perfectly with the group on every single track.
Favorite song here?
I love all six of the compositions on this record and to me they are one large composition with dozens of different doorways you can peek into and explore. The idea of the traveling circus complete with fun house mirrors, freak shows and fortune tellers all being mixed up in one little patch of land is central to each of the tracks here, so I view them as one big piece.
Can you usually predict which songs will be most popular in a CD?
I learned long ago that the things, events and ideas I find thrilling and interesting might not necessarily be the most popular or acceptable. I’ve come to terms with that and am more interested in finding a way to represent what I like about music and improvisation as close as possible, whether popular or not.
How would you describe your sound compared with your peers?
That’s a difficult question. For me, I am coming from a love of the tradition of jazz and swing along with the lineage of tenor saxophone players. However, due to my personality and philosophies on life, I don’t get too entrenched or stuck devoting my whole career to an homage to the past. For me there has to be a balance between learning from the greats and exploring your current world.
Further, there are also greats on your instrument who aren’t celebrated as much as they should be, and I proactively try to seek them out to draw inspiration. The goal is by the end of a lifetime, I will hopefully have arrived at something original or my own, but through an organic and honest process.
For more information, visit www.jonirabagon.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jon Irabagon.
© Debbie Burke 2018
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