Jon Irabagon

Outright!
Innova Records 699

Mostly Other People Do the Killing

This Is Our Moosic

Hot Cup 082

Alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, who migrated from suburban Chicago to Astoria, Queens, working with different bands in clubs and studying music along the way, won the 21st annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition last October. On the evidence of these CDs, it’s easy to see why.

Possessed of an upfront style, strong chops and a thorough understanding of the tradition, Irabagon composes swinging and sometimes complex tunes and is a mainstream polymath who obviously impressed representatives of the jazz establishment who hand out awards. No show-boater, the reedist takes only slightly more solo space on his debut session as he gets on This Is Our Moosic and is surrounded on both discs by the highest grade of young New York-centred talent. Overall though, he fares better as one interlocking clog of bassist Moppa Elliott’s extravagantly named Mostly Other People Do the Killing (MOPDtK), then on his own.

Why? Evidently trying to touch all bases on Outright, the alto man and his squad – trumpeter Russ Johnson, keyboardist Kris Davis bassist Eivind Opsvik drummer Jeff Davis plus guitarist Jesse Lewis and programmer Chris Cash on different tracks – brush against nearly every modern jazz current without settling on or buttressing any one with an exclusive statement. MOPDtK’s equally eclectic session at least cleaves to its stance as a “terrorist Bebop” band and interpolates unexpected sound currents on Elliott’s version of POMO deconstruction.

With a CD cover that parodies Ornette Coleman’s “This is Our Music” LP – MOPDtK’s previous disc lampooned original Blue Note records’ distinctive colossal typography and faux-erudite liner notes – the band parades its influences upfront, but isn’t afraid to mess with expectation, something Irabagon merely touches on as leader.

Plus the MOPDtK tunes seem to better articulate the band members’ varied backgrounds. Trumpeter Peter Evans for instance, also plays microtonal solo trumpet, has worked with European avant gardists like British saxophonist Evan Parker, plus performs on piccolo trumpet in Baroque settings. Kevin Shea also drums with synthesizer player Matt Mottel in Talibam! and has a duo with guitarist Mary Halvorson; while Elliott teaches math and music. On his own, Irabagon plays in both Bop and 1980s pop cover band. MOPDtK covers Billy Joel’s “Allentown” at his insistence.

More generic to the group’s concept is Elliott’s compositional conceits. “My Delightful Muse” for instance is labeled funk, but comes across more like Dixieland call-and-response. On its axis is Evans spraying choruses of growls and tattoos, followed by piles of staccato triplets. With Irabagon alternately snorting and squeezing agitato wails and mouse squeaks, the tune reaches a climax of echoing double counterpoint while Shea rings glass armonica-like concussions and Elliott slaps his strings. With the horns and rhythm section sounding similar notes in different tempi, all eventually slide back to the Trad-Jazz replication with sul tasto bass lines serving as the finale.

Other pieces reference everything from the Batman theme to “Sidewinder”-styled funk, with Hard Bop licks and rock-styled backbeats appearing and vanishing at different junctures. “Drainlink” for example, has the saxophonist building tension while stuttering a stop-time chorus, as the bassist hits strings and wood repeatedly. “Fagundus” is another jumping Bebop tune encompassing a rasping counter line from Evans as simultaneously Irabagon extends his emotional flutter tonguing with pulsating slurs.

Defining and definitive “Effort, Patience Diligence” is a bravura 12/8 head, which packs nearly every blues cliché into fewer than six minutes. With Elliott walking, Shea shaking bells and tambourines plus Evans squeezing notes until they bray, it’s an undulating, chromatic melody that could have sneaked over from a Preservation Hall Jazz Band session, until, of course, the saxophonist breaks things up with tongue stops and reed bites.

Perhaps Irabagon’s debut disc should have demonstrated the same faith in eclecticism. Never less than professional, it resounds with a Back to the Future vibe much of the time. Included are a POMO run through of “Groovin’ High”; unaccompanied downward slurs and burbles from the horns on another tune that seems to replicate the “Lonely Woman” head; and a skewed neo-Dixieland party-time take on the band’s theme complete with fluid clarinet licks and lurching, almost inchoate rhythmic overflow.

More notable are “Charles Barkley” and “That Was Then”. The former is built on stops from bassist Opsvik, a Norwegian living in New York, who also works with tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, and the strumming arpeggios and block chords of Canadian expatriate pianist Davis. As drummer Davis rolls and pumps and Johnson blasts a near freylach line, Irabagon turns the piece around with stop-time and rubato meandering, halving the tempo with a cut-and-thrust solo that’s half Hard Bop and half Free Time. With the husband-and-wife piano/drums team playing at double tempo, hip-hopping back to the original swinging theme, the alto man eventually reveals his inner Hank Crawford, while Johnston exposes his inner Marcus Belgrave.

As for the later tune, a sweeping panoramic trumpet exposition over woody bass thumps eventually gives way to Davis eschewing low-frequency chords at the top end for lurching organ note clusters mated with the drummer’s shuffle beat. Following a mid-section taken up by guest guitarist Lewis spewing sprays of pop-rock licks and crunching, distorted chords, vocal backing from the so-called “mixed choir” of musicians doesn’t quite get the piece back on track.

In fact, the most out-of-character composition – for Irabagon at least – is “Quorum Call”, which posits a move away from the expected. Pianist Davis introduces the later tune with some inside-piano string clipping and soundboard rumbles that soon mix it up with muffled grace notes from Johnson and cascading vibrations from the saxophonist. Defining itself as an antiphonal freeform interlude, the composition rests on busy paradiddles and military-style press rolls from drummer Davis. Also present are oscillated knob-twisting from Cash that practically redefines the composition until a Hard Bop-like head kicks in, redirecting the piece to exit with rolling, kinetic cadences from the pianist and pops and drags from the drummer.

Obviously someone with a burgeoning reputation, Irabagon has promise – definitely as a sideman in a close-knit, organized band as MOPDtK’s CD demonstrates –but thus far has yet to make a major recorded statement. Nevertheless, judging from these discs, it’s hoped that in future he will develop into a notable stylist – and not just another poll winner.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Moosic: 1. Drainlick 2. Two Boot Jacks 3. Fagundus 4. The Bats in Belfry 5. East Orwell 6. My Delightful Muse 7. Biggertown 8. Effort, Patience Diligence 9. Allentown

Personnel: Moosic: Peter Evans (trumpet and piccolo trumpet) Jon Irabagon (alto, tenor, and soprano saxophones, Moppa Elliott (bass) and Kevin Shea (drums)

Track Listing: Outright: 1. Anchors (By Design) 2. Quorum Call* 3. Groovin’ High 4. That Was Then+ 5. Outright Theme# 6. Charles Barkley 7. Oddjob

Personnel: Outright: Russ Johnson (trumpet); Jon Irabagon (alto saxophone); Kris Davis (piano and organ); Eivind Opsvik (bass) and Jeff Davis (drums) plus Chris Cash (programming)*; Jesse Lewis (guitar)+; Mixed Choir+ and Original Outright! Jass Band#