It was a friend on the phone, a jazz aficionado of long standing with a massive record collection that spanned the whole spectrum of jazz, from its earliest roots to the more abstruse avant-garde end.
It seems he had caught Irabagon, a young Filipino-American saxophonist at the gala performance of the recently-concluded P.I. Jazzfest, and was totally blown away.
It takes a lot to blow my friend away. This guy knows his onions, and when he said Irabagon was “channeling Dolphy,” I knew he didn’t mean watching the Comedy King on local TV.
(Eric Dolphy, the post-bop saxophonist who was one of jazz’s true musical geniuses, was up there in his pantheon along with Miles and Coltrane: To be mentioned in the same breath was high praise indeed.)
This guy must be the real deal.
Luckily, Irabagon was still in town and was holding a jazz clinic that very afternoon at the Fort.
A quick Google revealed even more intriguing details: He had won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, recorded four well-received albums and played with an impressive roster of people including Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel (!), Lou Reed and even Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith.
The guy on the podium at the jazz clinic looked even younger than his 32 years, and spoke in American “upspeak.” (Where every sentence sounds like a question?) He could have been one of the high school teachers in “Glee.”
But then, he picked up his Selmer Mark 7 alto saxophone and proceeded to drop jaws with an impromptu improvisation on “I Remember You.” In one fluid solo, he managed to channel not only Dolphy but the ghosts of saxophone greats from Coleman Hawkins to John Coltrane, and weave them into a sound that could only be his own, evoking the entire span of jazz history into the present.
The real deal, indeed.
Jon Irabagon was born in Chicago and grew up in the Illinois suburbs. His father was an electrician from Manila, his mother a chemist from General Santos City. Both had gone to work for pharmaceutical companies in the Chicago area.
“My parents moved to the States four or five years before I was born. They had a hard time the first few years, so they wanted to make sure their kids had it a little easier than them,” he says.
“They didn’t speak Tagalog to us so we would get really good in English to be able to compete with the other kids. But the elements of Filipino culture were still there – extremely strong family ties, all the holidays, all the symbols and stuff.”
He started playing music in fourth grade, taking piano lessons from an aunt who had been a certified piano teacher from the University of the Philippines. In high school, at age 15, he decided to join the school band.
“It was just a way to hang out with friends and play music together,” he says. “My band director told me he needed me to play alto saxophone, and he gave me a bunch of records – Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Before that, my uncles would give me Kenny G CDs for Christmas, so that’s what I thought jazz was – kind of an instrumental pop thing. But after listening to Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley, I was like – wait a minute, there’s something else going on here. I thought, man, this jazz thing is really where it’s at. If you study bebop and swing, you can really do all the other styles from all the discipline and learning that goes into it. I thought, since jazz is the hardest thing to do, let me get into this.”
Although he wasn’t sure that he wanted to make a living playing music, he decided to go for it, enrolling in the jazz program of DePaul University as a music business major, with a scholarship for playing in the school band. At the same time, he began playing gigs with various bands in the Chicago area.
“Chicago’s a really great city in that it’s pretty big, which means there are a lot of gigs to play, but the music scene is pretty small,” he says. “After five years of living downtown, I was playing nearly every night with a bunch of different bands. One night would be big band night, the next night would be crazy loud free improvisation, then the next would be jazz quartet, then the next would be a Brazilian ensemble where all the members were from Sao Paolo except me, and the next night would be a Sting and Police cover band. It was super challenging.”
Although he was good enough to keep up with most players in Chicago, Irabagon felt he needed to take it to the next level, and in jazz, that meant moving to New York. He enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music for a master’s degree in jazz performance, and began playing in the rarefied New York jazz scene, again with a bunch of different bands playing wildly different styles, from straight ahead mainstream post-bop to free-form improvisation.
He then won a half-scholarship to Juilliard, which had just begun a jazz program run by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz and Lincoln Center crew, which was roots and tradition oriented in contrast to the Manhattan School’s more modernist approach.
After finishing with an artist’s diploma in jazz performance in 2005, Irabagon found himself at a crossroads.
“There are a million saxophone players in New York,” he says. “How can I differentiate myself from the other 999,999?”
His answer was an intense and rigorous period of self-study in the time-honored jazz tradition of “woodshedding.” Old-school jazz players would hole themselves up in a wood shed to study their instruments. Irabagon began transcribing and studying solos by the giants of jazz saxophone, a process that continues to this day.
At the same time he began playing with various bands, again not staying with one style but stretching himself to accommodate everything from bebop to the outer limits of free noise-based improvisation. It was the latter that first got him noticed, with the band Mostly Other People Do The Killing.
“Our approach was totally free—you could improvise on the form or just totally freak out or anything in between,” he says. “The first couple of gigs we played were just terrible. We were paid about 15 cents each. It took a long time to coalesce, but after three or four years we recorded a couple of CDs and were invited to this music festival in Germany. From playing for audiences no bigger than 20 or 30 people, we suddenly found ourselves playing in front of 4,000 screaming Germans jumping up and down for our music. Whoa! This is awesome!”
The lesson was clear, he says: no matter how challenging the music, there is an audience out there.
“Don’t change what you play in order to fulfil what someone else thinks you should play,” he says. “If you pursue your own thing, as long as you’ve worked hard at it, you can have an audience.”
Irabagon recorded his first album as a leader, “Outright,” at age 29. An independent release, the title was largely self-explanatory.
“I think a recording is a document of where you’re at, at that particular time,” he says.
After winning the 2008 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, however, Irabagon was ready to break into the mainstream. Apart from a generous cash prize, the winner also got a chance to record for Concord, a major jazz label.
In 2009, Irabagon found himself standing in the sound booth of legendary jazz producer Rudy Van Gelder, the man who had twiddled the knobs on countless milestone jazz recordings. Van Gelder didn’t help Irabagon’s nerves any when he told the young saxophonist: “Three feet from where you’re standing is Coltrane’s spot when he recorded ‘A Love Supreme’.” Giant steps, indeed.
Irabagon stepped up, however. The resulting record, “The Observer,” won critical praise. JazzTimes called it “one of the most cohesive, consistent and delightful discs of 2009.”
The album sealed his reputation as one of the rising stars in the current jazz firmament. Last year’s album, “Foxy,” was similarly well-received. Irabagon is also one of a handful of Filipino-Americans who have broken through to the top rungs of the jazz world, together with vocalist Charmaine Clamor and percussionist Susie Ibarra.
This may not mean much to mainstream audiences in the age of instant Internet celebrity, where validation of world-class status comes in the form of a spot on Oprah or Ellen. But Jon Irabagon’s achievements in the world of jazz are even more impressive because of the sheer amount of hard work that went into them.
Irabagon, however, remains remarkably low-key and unassuming, even in front of starry-eyed Filipino jazz fans who have found in him a new idol.
“I’m a Libra, so I’m all about keeping a balance,” he says. “I’m very proud of my Filipino heritage. I think it’s a definite part of my identity—where I’m coming from. But there are many other things that have influenced me as well. I just try to play as honestly as possible.” •