Jon Irabagon: The Observer (2009)
Best known as the volatile saxophonist in bassist Moppa Elliott's self proclaimed terrorist be-bop band Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Jon Irabagon has only just begun his career as a solo artist. His bristling duet with drummer Mike Pride, I Don't Hear Nothin' But The Blues (Loyal Label, 2009) was preceded by Outright! (Innova, 2008), the self-titled debut of his own vivaciously eclectic quartet.
The Observer is Irabagon's first release for Concord Records, which awarded him a recording contract after he won last year's Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. On this surprisingly straight-ahead session (expertly recorded by Rudy Van Gelder), Irabagon is supported by a trio of longstanding veterans; pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Rufus Reid, and drummer Victor LewisStan Getz's touring rhythm section of the 1980s. Years of shared experience elevates Barron, Reid, and Lewis' congenial interplay beyond mere professionalism, lending this date a timeless appeal.
Seven of the ten selections are originals, demonstrating Irabagon's flair for composing accessible jazz tunes that fit comfortably in the mainstream tradition. A dynamic soloist, Irabagon plays alto for most of the date, his tortuous cadences recalling Charlie Parker's blistering dexterity, Wayne Shorter's cerebral precision, and Cannonball Adderley's soulful poise. Showing great reserve, he reins in his more vociferous tendencies, using subtle expressionistic accents (altissimo, chromatics, multiphonics) sparingly.
The heavily syncopated "January Dream" opens the set with lush harmonies from Barron and stalwart support from Reid and Lewis. Tom McIntosh's "Cup Bearers" is a brisk bop number, while the sultry title track is a lilting mid-tempo swinger featuring Irabagon's effusive tenor. Infused with simmering post-bop energy, "Joy's Secret" reveals a subtle complexity, underpinned by Lewis' Latin accents and Barron's prismatic flourishes, spotlighting a mellifluous trumpet solo from guest artist Nicholas Payton, who also contributes pithy salvos to the scorching hard bop burner "Big Jim's Twins."
Alternating vibrant up-tempo tunes with more introspective fare, Irabagon unveils a rarely heard sensitive side. His velvety tone is highlighted on Gigi Gryce's melancholy "Infant Song," while his lyrical phrasing dominates "Acceptance," the breezy bossa nova "Makai and Tacoma" and the earthy "Closing Arguments." His intimate duet with guest pianist Bertha Hope on her late husband Elmo Hope's somber ballad "Barfly" reveals depths of emotional maturity.
A solid and eminently likeable mainstream affair, The Observer scarcely hints at Irabagon's avant-garde credentials, focusing instead on his tastefully virtuosic capabilities as a straight-ahead stylistyet another facet of his wide-ranging artistry.
Track Listing: January Dream; Joy's Secret; The Infant's Song; Cup Bearers; The Observer; Acceptance; Makai and Tacoma; Big Jim's Twins; Barfly; Closing Arguments.
Personnel: Jon Irabagon: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone (5, 7); Kenny Barron: piano (1-8, 10); Rufus Reid: bass; Victor Lewis: drums; Nicholas Payton: trumpet (2, 8); Bertha Hope: piano (9).