Interview: Jon Irabagon

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 11.09.12 in Interviews

Jon Irabagon is a relentlessly original, genre-defying saxophonist and composer. His jazz chops are strong enough to have captured the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2008 – the most prestigious award that can be bestowed on a young musician in that field – yet he’s also a member of both the pugnacious deconstructionist jazz group Mostly Other People Do The Killing, and the trad-jazz swing band the Hot Club of Detroit. He plays with jazz luminaries like trumpeter Dave Douglas and has purloined Stan Getz’s old rhythm section for his sidemen, but he’s also has put out two records of unremitting skronk entitled I Don’t Hear Nothing But The Blues, the latter with grindcore and black metal guitarist Mick Barr from Orthrelm and Krallice.

Irabagon kicked off his own Irabbagast Records label with two releases – the collaboration with Barr (and drummer Mike Pride) and the stylistically-sprawling second effort from his band Outright!

eMusic’s Britt Robson caught up with Irabagon at his home in New York in October.

Your taste and activity in music is so broad, I’m wondering what you listened to growing up. Did you have any swoons over bands during your formative years?

It’s funny, my parents would go through different phases of popular music at the time. They’d pick one radio station for a couple months, then switch to another. When I was really young, there was this easy-listening phase, this elevator music. When I was playing video games, I remember they switched over to oldies and then country. I remember listening for some songs that had sax on them – especially on the oldies station. I think it eventually comes down to family and how supportive they are. My parents were very encouraging, and some of my aunts and uncles played music.

And it helps to have friends who like music. I’d go to someone’s house in the early ’90s and listen to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but another friend was into NWA, and of course everyone heard Michael Jackson. Later I was with people who were organizing jazz ensembles. I didn’t come to jazz until I was in high school. Then I had a great jazz band instructor who told me, “If you play sax, check out Cannonball Adderley.”

Then it became a snowball. Listening to Cannonball took me to Charlie Parker and then in college it took me to Steve Coleman, which took me to Anthony Braxton. I read that Braxton likes the guys in AACM, so I started listening to them, which took me to Evan Parker. It all snowballs. If you’re listening to Coltrane, someone will tell you about Rollins and that leads you to Wayne Shorter. Meanwhile friends listening to a bunch of other music say, “You have to check this out,” and that leads to snowballs in a different direction, and it keeps growing.

What is your attitude toward people making distinctions about the way genres or types of music should be defined?

It is interesting to me, because of this whole discussion about jazz as Black American music, and what is or isn’t jazz. There are very smart and opinionated people who think those kinds of things have implications. I can respect that and see where they’re coming from, and I’m not trying to subvert things – I just get way into different types of music. My love of Cannonball Adderley is just as sincere as my love for the Brazilian music of Caetano Veloso that I discovered when I was in this Brazilian band from South Harlem. They had all these complicated chord changes, not just from Veloso but from [Antonio Carlos] Jobim. The best way for me to learn was to listen and transcribe all these Caetano Veloso tunes the way I listened and transcribed the Cannonball tunes. So for me it is not about genres, it is about putting in the time with the music and discovering that you love it.

What about those wild improvisational records you title I Don’t Hear Nothing But The Blues, which mix metal, punk, jazz, blues and noise?

That’s a different thing. That’s a result of [drummer] Mike [Pride] and I being good friends and getting together every Wednesday night just to play and improvise. At first there were bass guitarists, but they kept bailing and after a while it was just the two of us. Then when he was about to go on tour, we figured we should try to record. We tried a couple of things and finally came up with this long-form improvisation. It wasn’t influenced by Interstellar Space, it was more [us] seeing what would happen if we stuck with one motif for one continuous 40- to 50-minute piece.

For the second volume, Mike had known Mick Barr for a long time but I didn’t. Then Hank Shteamer gave our album a really glowing review in Time Out New York, and said it reminded him of Orthelm. So I got the Orthelm album and I could really see what he was talking about, except there was more power from this metal guitarist. I had to find out who this guy was. It so happens that the next year at the Moers Festival in Germany, I was playing with [drummer] Barry Altschul on the material from our Foxy album and on the schedule it showed that Orthelm was playing right after us on the same day on the same stage. We got to meet Mick and he was a really great guy.

Mike and I had a gig at the Stone down on the Lower East Side and so we invited Mick to play. After the first record came out, the original idea was to add a new person each time to this long-form improvisation thing, and we knew immediately that Mick was the correct person to add.

That is a wild and woolly disc. How much prior planning goes into something that extensive and yet seemingly spontaneous?

There is no [set] material to start. The idea is to play continuously, but not throw any notes away, and hopefully reuse and develop the motifs from the first couple of minutes.

Do you worry about playing over each other?

Ideally you’d be able to hear everybody equally. The thing about improvising with these guys is they are very mobile. We can be really locked in and then, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not, one or the other of us goes our own way. I love the openness, the way we lock in and shift and come together, all the while staying with the same [motifs].

You play so many different kinds of music but are you ever concerned that you become a dilettante that way – “jack of all trades, master of none” – and you’ll miss the reward of really absorbing something?

I’m sure everybody’s answer is different, but I just like playing music. I started playing jazz not to be complicated – it has never been about the intellectual reward – but just as another kind of music I love. Music is very special to me, and any honest outcroppings of that come from just trying to play all of it. I’ve been in some great situations, playing with musicians from different fields and genres who are in the highest degree of what they do.

You won the Thelonious Monk award, a very prestigious honor in straight jazz circles, which led to a recording gig of your choice. You selected the entire three-person rhythm section from Stan Getz’s later band to play with on the record. That’s very mainstream but also pretty deep.

Yeah, I checked out a lot of Stan Getz and had all these records and this was a chance to work with those guys as a unit. I’m really glad I did it.

Music is something I am going to be pursuing my entire life; it is my calling, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. So I have until I’m 80 or 90 to follow whatever I am feeling. It is my blessing or my curse that I am into all these things, but I do think I’m doing deep study with them. I would rather go into something because I am into it, not to make other people happy. Besides, there are different parameters for different groups. Like, in Mostly Other People Do The Killing, pretty much anything goes, but it is not that way at all with the Hot Club of Detroit. I’m not going to try and sabotage a band unless they want to be sabotaged. Mostly Other People Do The Killing has that attitude [of being open to sabotage] and I’ve been with them eight or nine years now. It has changed my playing but more importantly [changed] the way I think about music.

But I am also torn. It is like being a double agent, because to be honest, I like the mobility. I want to do my thing, but right now my thing is being inclusive with all these different kinds of people. I mean, playing with Dave [Douglas] and his band for just a limited time, I’ve already learned new things.

Which brings us to Outright!, the band which seems emblematic of your playing because it is all over the map with different styles and guest stars. Your second Outright! record is the other release you are putting out on your own label this week.

Outright! was my first project as a leader five or six years ago. I wanted to improvise on a lot of different things with different musicians, to mix it up from that mass umbrella.

You dedicated the new Outright! followup to the artist Gerhard Richter, and I’m thinking that his overpainted photographs do visually what you do musically.

That is my favorite period of Richter, these photographs that you can see something right away but you keep looking at it and it is more than you thought.

You even mix up your instruments. On the first Outright! record you played alto saxophone. On the new one, tenor.

They are totally different animals. The alto is kind of my girlfriend – we go out on dates – where my tenor is my buddy and I can be a little rougher with it. They are different voices and ideally I approach them differently. One of the original ideas with Outright! was to make a trilogy with alto, then tenor then soprano.

Why did you start your own record label?

I sent the first Outright! record to about 40 different labels. First, you have to send emails to find those labels, then craft emails [introducing yourself], then wait for a response and respond to their questions, then put together a [demo] CD and send it out in a package with a press release and wait to hear back from them.

It’s like you are already doing the work of having your own label.

Exactly. And with the internet, it is not necessary to go through all of that. Outright! is too scattered for some people, so it doesn’t have mass appeal and that is definitely true of the I Don’t Hear Nothing But The Blues records. But they are honest efforts that need to come out. Plus I’ve learned a lot from doing it from the business side.

Will you keep having your own label then?

Probably, because for me a record is a document. It is important to release a record when you’ve reached a certain point in what you are doing. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that mindset again, and I’ll keep changing my playing. So a record is a document of that period and that growth.