Saxophonist Jon Irabagon, who grew up in Morton Grove and later Gurnee and studied music at DePaul University, has steadily made a name for himself since relocating to New York in 2001 to pursue further studies at the Manhattan School of Music. For the plast few years he’s earned plaudits for his work in the gonzo freebop quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing, and last year he made an impressive debut as a leader with his band Outright! With these projects and as an in-demand sideman he routinely erases the boundaries between hard bop and free jazz, excelling at both approaches.
But his widest notoriety stems from winning the most recent Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, a prestigious annual contest that typically recognizes brilliance in traditional bop-oriented practices, last October. An expert panel— Jane Ira Bloom, Jimmy Heath, Greg Osby, David Sanchez and Wayne Shorter—chose Irabagon, netting him a $20,000 prize and a record deal with mainstream imprint Concord. His Concord debut, The Observer, will be released this fall.
On Thursday Irabagon returns to the Chicago area to play a duo concert of improvised music with manic drummer Mike Pride—a far cry from the playing that earned him the Monk prize. In addition to his wonderful new album with Pride, I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues (Loyal Label), he’s about to record MOPDTK’s fourth album; he’s also set to join trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson in turning guitarist Mary Halvorson’s trio into a quintet on a new recording.
A lot of great people have won the Monk Competition over the years, but most of them play pretty solidly within the tradition. Obviously you can do that, but you also pursue a lot other things, so were you surprised that you won?
JI: Yeah, I wasn’t expecting to even make the semifinals, let alone the finals or winning it. It was a totally scary and weird experience, but it was great. Having five superfamous jazz saxophone players, including Wayne Shorter, who’s one of my biggest idols, sitting there and taking notes and judging the way you play, and comparing it to 11 other people—it was totally weird and artificial and scary. But at the same time it was super fun and it was a great hang. I definitely have spent time learning how to play straight-ahead and in the tradition, but I definitely have some other interests that most of the other people there didn’t necessarily have.