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Jon Irabagon live at Upstairs

Matthew Kassel
Staff Writer
matthew.kassel [at] mail.mcgill.ca

I expected saxophonist Jon Irabagon’s first set at Upstairs Jazz Club on Friday night, January 23, to be a whirlwind, an exercise in soloistic hypnotism. That’s because his latest album, Foxy (Hot Cup)—inspired in part by Sonny Rollins’s 1957 album, Way Out West—was just that: a dire, 78 minute extended improvisation on a sixteen-bar form.

But on that album, Mr. Irabagon had a trio, with drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Peter Brendler. At Upstairs, he was working with a quartet, including a fine assortment of Montreal jazz musicians: pianist John Roney, drummer Jim Doxas, and bassist Fraser Hollins, with whom Mr. Irabagon studied in the Master’s program at the Manhattan School of Music in the early aughts.

When Mr. Irabagon started getting attention in 2008, after winning the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, it was said he had great talent but lacked a singular focus. The panoply of groups you found him in formed no common thread.

Still, versatility should be no impediment. At Upstairs, Mr. Irabagon, playing tenor saxophone, called his own original tunes—some unrecorded, most from his 2009 album, The Observer (Concord)—and a standard. He seemed comfortable with himself. And you wouldn’t have guessed he had commitment issues.

As the band rolled coolly into the title track from The Observer, the first tune of the night, you heard an opposing din of chatter coming from tables throughout the club. After the tune ended, and the audience had applauded, the talking started up again while Mr. Irabagon called the next song, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.”

Two women behind me were particularly loud and gabby as Mr. Irabagon worked his way into his second solo of the night, but he didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were closed, and he was playing his music, finding his way: with smooth, graceful precision. As he concluded his solo, the two refractory women were bobbing their heads, focused on the music and for Mr. Roney’s articulate, bluesy search.

This quartet was working in a post-bop framework, with sure, swinging rhythms and a reliable exchange of solos. But it wasn’t being too formulaic. Mr. Doxas played cool quarter notes on the ride, floating the beat. Mr. Hollins took a lovely solo, short but melodic and thoughtful.

And Mr. Irabagon is proving himself to be a saxophonist’s saxophonist (he also plays alto). Avoiding imitation, on Friday night he referenced in sound and style a wide range of saxophonists before him.

As I sat at the bar, lined with student jazz musicians focused intently on the stage, I heard some Stanley Turrentine, some Johnny Griffin, some Sonny Rollins, some John Coltrane in Mr. Irabagon’s sound. A sultry line, a sassy low-end hiccup, a dry squeak would set me thinking. But in the end, because I had to think too hard about them, it wasn’t worth it to make these connections.

Mr. Irabagon can blow a lot of history through his horn. And it’s not overwhelming, if you let it be.

Matthew Kassel is a fourth-year at McGill University studying political science and Arabic. When he can, he writes--often about jazz. Find some of his work at http://coldjazz.blogspot.com/.