Yesterday Chicago native and DePaul University graduate Jon Irabagon was announced as the winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, perhaps the highest-profile jazz competition in the U.S. The judges included heavies Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Greg Osby, Jane Ira Bloom, and David Sanchez. Irabagon will receive a $20,000 prize and a contract with Concord Records.
While the saxophonist certainly has a handle on the fundamentals of jazz and an intimate knowledge of the tradition, he’s also demonstrated a far more daring sensibility than most previous winners. Irabagon is a member of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the irreverent quartet I blogged about last week (though I didn’t mention him in the post), and earlier this year he released his first album as a leader, Jon Irabagon’s Outright! (Innova). In this impressive postbop outing, Irabagon and his excellent band–trumpeter Russ Johnson, pianist Kris Davis, bassist Eivind Opsvik, and drummer Jeff Davis–pull back from the absurdist mayhem of MOPDTK, couching heady, rigorous improvisation in elaborate compositions that shake loose from the usual theme-solos-theme structure.
On “Quorum Call” Irabagon blows fiery, post-Evan Parker sound sheets against a backdrop that snaps from chaos to tightly charted changes and back, augmented by wild, cross-cutting electronic beats and textures from guest Chris Cash. “That Was Then,” with its scorching electric-guitar solos from guest Jesse Lewis, is plangent jazz-rock pushed to dizzying heights by a wordless vocal chorus. And that’s just a taste of the album’s range: the group also offers a relatively straight reading of the Dizzy Gillespie bebop staple “Groovin” High,” and on “Outright! Theme” two dozen extra players drive a New Orleans-themed original straight through the gates of free-jazz hell. I’m very curious to hear where Irabagon goes from here.