Year after year The Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition launches young great talents to fame. Vocalists, instrumentalists even composers find their way to stardom through this most prestigious and famous annual jazz competition. Joshua Redman (award winner in saxophone category in 1991), Jane Monheit (the runner up in vocal category in 1998), Joey DeFrancesco (fourth place in Piano category in 1987), and Aziza Mustafa Zadeh (third place in Piano category in 1988) are some of the name once listed in the competition and still going strong today with their careers.
On October 28, 2008, the 21st annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition finals in saxophone and composition took place at the famous Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. A dozen of the world’s most talented young saxophonists competed to win. They had to face a meritorious panel of judges including the legendary Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Eath, Greg Osby, Jane Ira Bloom and David Sanchez. Three finalists went on performance with Dee Dee Birdgewater in a concert that also made a salute to the blues legend B.B. King. When the winner was announced, it turned out to be wonderful news for Asia, especially Philippines, because the winner was a Filipino-American saxophonist, Jon Irabagon.
Jon Irabagon is the first Filipino to win this competition. Not only he won the top prize, $20.000 scholarship, but he also got a record contract with Concord Records as a part of the partnership between the Monk Institute and Concord Music Group. It was the first time in twenty-one-year history of the Competition that the winner is guaranteed a recording contract, and Irabagon was the first winner to receive the honor. This great news was spread all over Asia, and now the album entitled “The Observer” has finally been released on October 20, 2009.
Jon Irabagon started to play the alto saxophone when he was still in 4th grade. He began playing in the suburban Chicago where he played various kinds of music. He attended DePaul University to continue his formal education in music. During these years he got the chance to perform with many jazz greats such as John Abercrombie and Tom Harell, the up-and-coming Michael Buble, also more pop oriented superstars like Richard Marx and the Pointer Sisters. He was involved in many recordings as a sideman during this developmental time in his career. Later he moved to New York City to continue his study at the Manhattan School of Music where he learned with one of his idols, Dick Oatts and received his Master degree in 2003, and got an Artist Diploma from the Juiliard School in 2005. Since then he started to go on tour around the world, from USA, Europe, Japan and Taiwan. Moving to New York seemed like the right decision for his career, because in there he has performed and recorded with great names in music world such as Wynton Marsalis, Billy Joel, Davie Liebman, Wycliffe Gordon, Rufus Reid, Deborah “Debbie” Gibson, Lou Reed, Ron Sexsmith and Tommy Iago. His collaboration also expanded outside jazz by performing modern classical style of Dmitri Tymoczko, Remigijus Merkelys, worked with the Pascal Rioult Dance Company and also toured with Chicago the Musical.
The Observer is Irabagon’s debut album under Concord Records, one of the most influential jazz recordings in the world today. Before this album, he actually released one album with his quintet under Innova in 2007, “Outright!” featuring Russ Johnson (trumpet), Kris Davis (piano), Eivind Opsvik (bass) and Jeff Davis (drums). It was his first album as the leader, after series of projects he entered as a sideman in Matt Grason’s Motel Project, the free improvising RIDD Quartet, The Jostein Gulbrandsen Quartet, Jon Lundbom’s Big Five Chord and Moppa Elliott‘s post bob rebel Mostly Other People Do the Killing. After passing all these quite long-life history, including winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition last year, finally he arrives in the new height by releasing “The Observer” with Concord Records.
Now let’s focus on “The Observer”. This is an outstanding album that I believe would become an instant classic if released 50 years ago and also fits the modern world we live today at the same time. It’s jazz in authenticity, clearly rooted in the melodies and harmonies of jazz’s countless and long historical traditions. Listening to “The Observer” makes you feel like being taken to an amazing trip, to see the best of jazz during the 50’s and 60’s. It’s a very brave attempt from a jazz artist who will become big in no time. For me Irabagon is one of the wildest and the most outstanding saxophone players in the jazz world today. He inherits the fearless melody sprint in accurate precision just like Wayne Shorter, he shows no fear to take a step into the sensitivity of John Coltrane, and he got the soul of Ornette Coleman or Wynton Marsalis and at the same time captures the relaxing style of Cannonball Adderley. He wrapped these all in the freest improvisation you could ever imagine to be presented today. You’ll gasp and say, this is jazz.
There are 10 songs included in the album, 10 songs that tagged with the modern jazz label, just like the lovely jazz era in the 50’s to 60’s, updated but not presented to fit today’s contemporary trend. 7 songs are his own compositions and 3 others are taken as a tribute to some great compositions that might not receive the recognition they deserved. All these 10 tracks were recorded by Irabagon together with a dream team of musicians. On the rhythm section we got Kenny Barron (piano), Rufus Reid (bass) and Victor Lewis (drums). This combo is reinforced by great trumpeter Nicholas Payton on two tracks, also Bertha Hope who provides lovely and touching accompaniment to one of her late husband, Elmo Hope‘s composition that was covered by Irabagon in this album. With the addition of Don Sickler as the producer and Rudy Van Gelder as the engineer, Irabagon has crafted a statement of power and beauty with many twists and turns, also unpredictable improvisations are everywhere, which I’m sure jazz fans will totally love.
Let’s take a tour of what’s inside the album. “January Dream” gives a tasty post-bop in sweet syncopate groove. Right from this first song you’ll be taken into a cool and cozy jazz club feeling. Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis give a steady base for Irabagon to explore the melody. I really love this opening track. “Joy’s Secret” is a song dedicated to Joy, Irabagon’s sister, presented in the joyous side of a mystery. A little Latin beat by Lewis is infectious; you’ll find your head move slowly following the rhythm before you even think of it. This one is a quite complex composition, but amazingly it’s very enjoyable. “The Infant’s Song” is a cover of the late Gigi Gryce‘s song. It starts with a tender moment built by Irabagon and Reid for one and a half minute before Reid and Lewis join in. This one is a ballad that deserves a better notice for its lovely melody, so I think it’s really a good choice for Irabagon to bring this song on the surface again. “Cup Bearers” is an up-tempo song written by trombonist/composer Tom McIntosh, who received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) last year. Again, it’s a really good choice to bring this song back again. Irabagon and friends deliver it in the lively loose bop style. Check out how precise is Irabagon’s trill on his saxophone. Kenny Barron matches his lightning speed running with his fast piano play. “Cup Bearers” is presented remarkably. “The Observer” is the song that I think really show who Irabagon really is, and what he’s all about. He clearly carries the main melody along with the improvisations almost all by himself. He can play soft and tender, but he can be as wild as the worst guy, and you can have it all in this song. Those are the first half of the album.
The sixth track is the gorgeous mid-tempo “Acceptance” that will simply get your attention every time you hear it. Surprisingly, Irabagon pays a visit to the magical Stan Getz’s bossa nova era. “Makai and Tacoma” appears in cool breezy bossa but still has the strong Irabagon’s texture in it. The speeding “Big Jim’s Twins” is a song where you can find how Irabagon’s alto sax and Payton’s trumpet could make a perfect unison. This is a very interesting song that could make you stand or even jump in ecstasy when it ends. On the contrary, “Barfly” appears as a very beautiful ballad that could make you breathless. “Barfly” is written by the late Elmo Hope, an important jazz pianist and composer that dominated the jazz scene in the 50’s together with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and other jazz greats on that era. This song is very special because Irabagon makes this one as an unforgettable and magical duet with Elmo’s wife, Bertha Hope. What a lovely collaboration between them. The last song “Closing Arguments” is an example of Irabagon’s perception of soulful melody. The melody keeps on repeating, it goes round and round just like arguments through Barron’s piano play, but Irabagon places the answers on top of it. By the time you reach the end, you will crave for more and start the album all over again, trying to find more beauties hidden behind each of the tracks.
Jon Irabagon clearly is a kind of improvise-thirst artist. With this album he has successfully established a really strong base for his bright future career. When there are many new jazz forms found in today’s music gallery, and there will be more to come for sure, Irabagon takes us to feel how it was when jazz was shaped in such forms by jazz greats, from John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis to Cannonball Wanderley in the glorious modern jazz era. Even the moment when Stan Getz proved how bossa could blend harmoniously with this modern jazz is captured nicely by Irabagon. This album is based on those lovely jazz eras, but at the same time presented in quality jazz in today’s time frame. Facing the heavy panel of judges consisting of Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Eath, Greg Osby, Jane Ira Bloom and David Sanchez is never an easy task, but with “The Observer” we know why he won their hearts. It gets stronger when he joined the dream team, Kenny Barron (piano), Rufus Reid (bass) and Victor Lewis (drums) plus trumpeter Nicholas Payton and very special performance by Bertha Hope. What a nice album! The more you listen, the more you hunger. Unpredictable and daring improvisations are all over. Irabagon has set 10 tasteful selections, he is ready to make you realize why jazz become one of the genre that always have a special place in the music world. Irabagon, you have made jazz lovers in Asia so proud of you. I recommend this one for serious jazz lovers and for those who want to hear a spontaneous and exciting creative-thinking jazz that can make you reach your climax. Seriously, you shouldn’t miss this one.
1. January Dream
2. Joy’s Secret
3. The Infant’s Song
4. Cup Bearers
5. The Observer
7. Makai and Tacoma
8. Big Jim’s Twins
10. Closing Arguments
Reviewed by: Riandy Kurniawan
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