Audeze interviews saxophonist and composer Jon Irabagon

May 03, 2021

Jon Irabagon is a composer/saxophonist/bandleader originally from Chicago. he's been based in New York City for almost twenty years and was constantly touring throughout Europe, Asia and North America before COVID destroyed the music industry in 2020. According to Wikipedia, Jon was the winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition and one of Time Out's "25 essential New York City jazz icons." He has performed with such diverse artists as Wynton Marsalis, Lou Reed, Evan Parker, Billy Joel, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Bertha Hope, Herbie Hancock, Conor Oberst, Christian McBride, Mike Pride, Kenny Barron, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Bill Laswell, Tyshawn Sorey, Ingrid Laubrock, Ava Mendoza, Mick Barr, and Tom Rainey. Jon came to Audeze through the influence of David Breskin.

Here's our chat with Jon:

Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of? 

I'm proud of all the albums I've done as a leader, but a few stick out in my mind.  I did a trio album (featuring the legendary Barry Altschul on drums) called "Foxy" which is one long take (a complete CD's length) on a standard jazz form, with all three of us changing directions, opening up, contracting, and doing our best to implode that form while interacting with each other.  I remember being completely exhausted at the end of the take (I think I slept ten hours that night), but Barry, who would have been around 70 years old at the time, came out of the drum booth with his arms open and was like, "Are we going to do another take?" The bass player and I bust out laughing.  I have always been a huge fan of Barry and his role as a leader in the American free jazz genre, and it's been a pleasure to have him in some of my ensembles as well as getting to perform in his trio The 3Dom Factor.

Another album I'm particularly proud of is Inaction is an Action (on my label Irabbagast Records).  It's a solo sopranino saxophone album; I'm not aware of any other solo saxophone albums solely dedicated to the tiny horn.  I rented a practice space next to heavy metal bands in Brooklyn for over a year and practiced against that backdrop of noise for three to six hours almost every day to get ready for that album, and I'm really proud of the weird results.

And finally, my latest album, Invisible Horizon, is a turn towards more serious composition-based pieces, and the piano quintet that occupies the first CD features the Mivos Quartet (string quartet) and Matt Mitchell on piano.  I am thrilled with how they interpreted and dedicated themselves to my first foray into string writing.  

How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days? 

These days, I'm trying to compose as much as I can and get those compositions onto the recordings.  I feel like ideally you can fuse your improvisational self with your compositional self, and delving deeper into both worlds has helped me get better at both individually, if that makes any sense.  I still focus on learning new angles and directions on saxophone but studying composition and trying my hand at it more has been really rewarding recently.  

Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?  

Going to see live music has been absolutely crucial in my growing love for music, especially live music.  I remember so many live concerts that I have seen -- the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Maynard Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau Band, Billy Joel, Pearl Jam, Sonny Rollins, Keith Jarrett, Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Berlin Philharmonic, Bjork, Eric Clapton, Janet Jackson-- where afterwards I was just completely in awe of the power of music and just wanted to be a part of it in some way.  Of course I'd love to jump in a time machine and get to see some of my heroes like John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Pablo Casals or Charlie Parker at a show as well, but at least we have albums we can enjoy their music through.

Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers? 

I'd say, if you go down this musician/composer road for a living, make sure you can't imagine yourself doing anything else with your life.  It's a tough, non-stop calling, and while your "normal" friends head to happy hour at 5pm you will have to keep working at an intangible goal most of those evenings to really cut through all the noise and make a name for yourself.  But, if you're able to do that, music is one of the most rewarding and satisfying things you can dedicate yourself to.  If you do go down this road, learn as much as you can about all different styles of music and methods of creating it, and hang out with the most creative, inventive and passionate people you meet.  They will give you energy even when you feel like your energy is starting to fade.  

How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?

I recorded my first sideman album over 25 years ago, and from that experience forward, I have always been striving to find the headphones that recreate the feel of live, unencumbered playing... Headphones and great audio gear help make this music world a more fascinating and beautiful one.  

I got the LCD-X headphones and love them!! What’s amazing is I was about to head to the studio to record my parts for the next Dave Douglas album when I got the call that my headphones arrived. Opened them up and brought them straight into the session! I could hear everything with so much clarity and precision; the session was easily the easiest, most stress-free session I have done in years.  It will be a blast using these from now on in the studio!