Jon Irabagon is busy these days. And for jazz fans, that’s a good thing. The Chicago-born Filipino American saxophonist puts out challenging music with some of the most accomplished players in the world of creative music. The International Examiner caught up with him to talk about what it means to play, write, and perform on your own terms.
“There was definitely music in the household all the time,” Irabagon says about growing up. “Standards, country ‘n’ western, elevator music, pop, R&B. There was a lot of variety, which has appeared in my music. But the hardcore jazz and bebop, I had to later seek out when I was in high school.”
At DePaul University, he majored in music business and minoring in journalism while his parents continued to support his move to jazz music’s big leagues: New York City. He knew where he could get more training and he sought out just the right person for the job: Dick Oatts, lead saxophonist for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and instructor at the Manhattan School of Music. Irabagon earned a master’s degree there. He had the support of his parents the entire time. “I was lucky in that regard,” Jon says.
Working in one of the most competitive environments for professional improvisers, Jon kept pace. His work paid off when he won the 2008 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Sax Competition. The victory was probably even sweeter given that the judges for that event were at the top of their craft: Jane Ira Bloom, Jimmy Heath, Greg Osby, David Sanchez, and Wayne Shorter.
We talked about the second of his Outright! Albums, Unhinged, and how he’s worked in oblique references to his cultural identity.
The song “Lola Pastillas” has been incorrectly described by at least one music reviewer as a tango. Sure, it has a great Latin groove, but it’s less Buenos Aires in origin and more like something you’d hear in Havana or Manila. While Jon composed it as a tune that could be played with a steady tempo, the Unhinged version allows for his players to state parts of the melody, fall apart into a free section, and then come back together again. It’s close to how conversations at loud Filipino family parties go sometimes – something holds the attention of the crowd for a while before the room slides into chaos for a bit.
Irabagon says, “I was preparing for this album and writing that tune in particular when I went to the Philippines [in 2011]. They took us to this place where a woman was making pastillas [a candy usually made with milk and sugar], and she’s had that job for like 50 years. She had all of her flavors there, all different kinds. When I was a kid, when we would get a box of pastillas, we would devour it. It was like my favorite thing ever. It seemed appropriate that I dedicate something [on the album].”
On “Silent Smile,” the bass starts off the track quietly and out of tempo. Over the course of 10 minutes, the players state a deceptively simple phrase. By the end, dozens of musicians slowly crescendo into a dramatic scene.
“I also wanted to make sure there was an element of fun in the studio,” Irabagon says. “I wanted to share that fun with as many people as possible. I wrote this four-bar tune [which] repeats. It circles in on itself. I wanted to feature the bass on something, so compositionally it starts off low and quiet and eventually, 30 people come and join a huge live sound. I had to figure how to get from one place to the other. All my friends came to the studio; I bought some beers. We were all hanging out. We were going to rehearse this a couple of times. I told people they could follow these changes, or they could ignore them altogether. For me, that’s a lot of fun because you can get a sense of someone’s personality. Every time I listen to that track, I hear something new. We packed that studio. It was one of the highlights of that whole recording session.”
Jon’s schedule is packed with touring dates with several bands, including trumpeter-composer Dave Douglas; the spunky quintet, Mostly Other People Doing the Killing; appearances with guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson; percussionist Mike Pride’s From Bacteria to Boys; and his own group, Outright!.
He also leads a trio that features veteran drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Mark Helias.
Irabagon is also writing music for a woodwind quintet “to expand the palette” while also doing research for his solo sopranino record, Inaction is An Action. “I’m setting up a bunch of challenges for myself, trying to expand the reach of the music.”
In the tradition of other musicians like Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Jon Jang, Mark Izu, and Francis Wong, Irabagon started his own record label, Irrabagast, as a result of “knowing that maybe the kind of music that I want to make isn’t mainstream-friendly. Trying to compromise my music was never part of the equation.” Half of the label’s 10 releases are Irabagon’s while the rest feature a bright palette of American creative music by trumpeter Brandon Lee, the Uptown Jazz Tentet, baritone saxophonist Anders Svanoe, and contrabass clarinetist Josh Sinton.
Irabagon’s latest release, Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics, grabs your attention initially with Colin Batty’s artwork, which is reminiscent of late-19th century “freak shows.” Filipinos were no stranger to these displays that melded scientific curiosity with popular entertainment. While the U.S.-Philippine war bloodied the archipelago at the beginning of the twentieth century, thousands of Filipinos were featured at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition as newly acquired living specimens on hundreds of acres in what is how St. Louis’ Forest Park.
The album’s liner notes take the form of a barker’s pitch on the midway, calling out to passersby to check out the musical freaks like “the man who breathes fire through a brass tube,” or “the man with limbs within limbs on drums.”
The vibe on the album is hard-charging fun. Irabagon points out “the confident experimentation, stylistic breadth and imagination [that bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Rudy Royston] bring to the table is life-affirming and motivational, and I wanted that spirit to permeate through the whole CD…. The songs are intricate and tricky. Odd meters and quirky melodies abound, but the overall feeling is bristling energy and risk-taking.”
Speaking of risks, maybe that’s why Irabagon publishes his work under the moniker, “F Magellan.” It takes a risky spirit to try to circumnavigate the globe as Ferdinand Magellan did, only to be cut down in the Philippines’ shallow waters by Datu Lapu-Lapu. Working on this album “has given [Irabagon] even more ideas for where we can steer this group in the future.