Jon Irabagon had earned a master's degree from Manhattan School of Music, he'd studied with top saxophonists Dick Oatts and Victor Goines, and he'd paid his dues gigging around New York. It was 2008 and he was ready for the top contest in American jazz, the Thelonious Monk Competition.
The competition, held in Los Angeles, had been a gateway to stardom for Joshua Redman, Jane Monheit, Jacky Terrasson, Marcus Roberts, and others, but that wasn't foremost in Irabagon's mind.
"I wasn't that worried about the competition aspect of it," says Irabagon, who plays at Lovin' Cup Sunday with Barry Altschul and 3Dom Factor. "I just wanted to spend that weekend hanging out with the judges."
Those judges were a "Who's Who" of saxophone greats: Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Greg Osby, Jane Ira Bloom, and David Sanchez. Still, saxophonist Seamus Blake, gave him some advice. Blake, who won the 2002 competition, told Irabagon that the rhythm section had 30-minute rehearsals with each of the 12 contestants and had to learn all of their music. Blake advised him to choose material that the overworked musicians would feel comfortable with. So Irabagon selected standards like "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
He took first place. But that wasn't the best part.
"Even more than winning the competition, just knowing that Wayne Shorter appreciated my playing meant a lot to me," Irabagon says. "He's very cryptic when he gives advice, but he supported where my improvisation was coming from. It helps me stick to my guns when I start doubting things about my improvising. It helps me double down and try to be myself."
Irabagon grew up in a suburb of Chicago. His father, an electrician, and his mother, a chemist, were not musicians. But his extended family included uncles who played violin and piano and sang.
His interest in jazz took off in high school when his band director saw potential and gave him records by "Cannonball" Adderley and Sonny Rollins.
He began to seek out Chicago legends, attending Von Freeman's sessions at the New Apartment Lounge, and catching Fred Anderson at the Velvet Lounge. After graduating from DePaul University, Irabagon moved to Brooklyn where he connected with a host of up-and-coming players. He now plays with so many groups he can't quite come up with the number.
Of all of the bands Irabagon joined, none was more eclectic and controversial than Mostly Other People Do the Killing.
"That group was very interesting in terms of career development for me," Irabagon says. "We formed a year or two after I got to New York and those guys are pretty close personal friends. I spent a lot of time with them in vans, trains, and planes for upwards of 10 years. We were always challenging each other with lots of humor and fun and pushing our music forward. There was a nice camaraderie that might not exist in all-star groups."
MOPDTK caused a stir two years ago when it released "Blue," a meticulous, note-for-note re-creation of Miles Davis's landmark 1959 album "Kind Of Blue."
"During one of our tours we were talking about learning from our masters," Irabagon says. "We thought, what if we took that to an extreme?"
Aside from the audacity of the music, the liner notes of "Blue" consisted only of "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," a 1939 story by Jorge Luis Borges, defending a fictional author whose ambition was "to produce a number of pages which coincided — word for word and line for line — with those of Miguel de Cervantes." The album was an intellectual conundrum that puzzled some critics.
"All four of us are into this kind of literary philosophy and these alternate realities," Irabagon says. "Those kinds of ideas and those works have informed all of our playing from the beginning."
Irabagon had perhaps the most challenging role: reproducing every improvised sax solo by John Coltrane on tenor and Adderley on alto.
"That was the hardest thing I've ever done," he says. "But I learned a ton by transcribing those solos. Not only is there an extra layer of stuff you can't notate, on some of the tunes the 16th notes are not completely even," because Coltrane's going for it in the moment.
By my count, Irabagon is in more than a dozen groups. How adaptable does he have to be?
"The parameters are slightly different for each group, but I've been lucky in that each of the groups is interested in my voice, what I bring to the table. So I'm not having to bend too much past where I actually like bending to.
"I get to play with Dave Douglas which is a huge dream come true. Playing with Barry Altschul for the last six years — these guys have taught me a lot about music and life, both on and off the bandstand. Playing with Mary Halvorson and Mike Pride for so long has also educated me about where I want my own music to go."
But, at this stage of his career, he's ready to take the reins and step into the leadership role more often.
"During the first dozen or so years I've been very conscientious of knowing that I've still got a lot to learn," Irabagon says. "I've got a lot to pick up from elders, more mature, experienced players. In the next couple of years — and it's happening already — I've been feeling like I want to lead my own groups more often. But I needed to go through the apprenticeship and mentorship periods that led to this."