Podcast 833: A Conversation with Jon Irabagon

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Like many New Yorkers, when COVID-19 shut down much of their the world, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and his family decided it would be best if they left their city home for a quieter, more secure environment. Unlike almost all New Yorkers, for Jon it meant moving to western South Dakota, the home of his in-laws. Two weeks of quarantine turned into a month away from home, then three months, and eventually almost eight months out of New York.

During that time, Jon found Falling Rock, a canyon on the edge of the Black Hills National Forest, just a few miles outside of town. He began a five hour a day, seven days a week, seven-month long “residency” there, hiking to different locations in the canyon and composing and improvising there, using the different natural reverbs and nature as a partner and collaborator for his tenor and soprano sax.

A number of projects are destined to come from this period of creativity, and the first is his album of solo improvisations on the compositions of Charlie Parker, entitled Bird With Streams. At times, Irabagon sees to strip the tunes of all melody and bring our rhythms; other times the music is strikingly melodic. He plays with and without a mouthpiece, or with just a mouthpiece, to challenge himself to bring new and different aspects to the music, and his own playing.

Irabagon and his playing will appear in a number of settings over the next five months. Bird With Streams will be followed by a film, Legacy, produced by and premiering on the website of A Tribe for Jazz in September. Later in the year, a new quartet album featuring Matt Mitchell, Chris Lightcap and Dan Weiss will be released. That group has recently been on the road, and Jon hopes for more dates as the CD nears release.

While all of this is happening, a 2019 recording of Jon as part of the 3dom Factor, a trio of Irabagon, drummer/percussionist Barry Altschul and bassist Joe Fonda is being released on the Not Two label. That album, entitled Long Tall Sunshine, allows listeners to renew their interest in Jon as a trio musician, playing five of Altschul’s expansive compositions in a live setting, allowing him to showcase his sharp improvisational instincts, playing off and with a percussive backing.

Podcast 833 is my conversation with Jon Irabagon, as he discusses the creation of Bird With Streams, his admiration of and desire to play with Barry Altschul, and how the music and philosophy of Sonny Rollins seems to permeate his latest projects. He also previews the Legacy film project, and talks about the upcoming quartet album and tour. Musical selections from Bird With Streams include “Now’s the Time,” “Blues for Alice” and “Anthropology,” and from Long Tall Sunshine includes “Irina.”

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