Jon Irabagon talks to Bernd Ihno Eilts/ at Kulturspeicher Leer, Germany.

The Groningen Report

On december 1st, 2016 I had the big pleasure to speak with new giant saxophone player, composer and educator Jon Irabagon from New York City, who I met at the Jazz Club Der Kulturspeicher in East Frisian city Leer in northern Germany.

Jon Irabagon, former player of Mostly Other People Do The Killing (MOPDTK) is involved in projects with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and projects with John Zorn and his many own. In Germany he was next to double bass player Joe Fonda part of Barry Altschul’s 3Dom Factor.

Barry Altschul is a free jazz and hard bop drummer, a veteran of highly influential groups with Paul Bley, Kenny Wheeler, George Lewis, Lee Konitz, Art Pepper, Dave Liebman, Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers and others. In 1969 he formed the famous group Circle, together with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Chick Corea. Circle was a band on fire with creativity. That time Chick Corea and Dave Holland just left Miles Davis‘s band and Anthony Braxton brought in new directions from the AACM (Association for the advancement of creative musicians). The great Paris Concert of Circle is released on ECM records, ECM 1018/19 in 1971, a huge milestone document of avant-garde jazz!

Joe Fonda is a composer, bassist, interdisciplinary performer and educator. Fonda has performed with his own ensembles and collaborated and performed with Archie Shepp, Kenny Barron, Perry Robinson, Dave Douglas, Han Bennink, Leo Smith, Billy Bang and many others. He was the bassist with the Anthony Braxton sextet, octet and tentet from 1984 through 1999.

Jon Irabagon, winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition, has since topped both the Rising Star Alto Saxophone and Tenor Saxophone categories in the DownBeat magazine Critics’ Poll and been named one of Time Out New York’s 25 New York City Jazz Icons. He was also named 2012 Musician of the Year in The New York City Jazz Record and is, next to his own quintet and projects an integral member of the Mary Halvorson Quintet, the Dave Douglas Quintet and the Sonny Rollins Tribute Trio. Just recently he started his own record label, Irabagast Records.

In Leer we talked about touring, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, the Lincoln Center and Wynton Marsalis, the sopranino saxophone, baseball and other hobbies next to music, MOPDTK, Barry Altschul & Joe Fonda, Jean Tinguely and teaching, especially myself, if I would become his student.

Enjoy a very special interview and talk with Jon Irabagon!

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Dear Jon, I visited your website and was really shocked. How can you live with a tour schedule like you have?

Jon Irabagon: (Laughing). Well, this is a very special case. My schedule is really crazy right now but it’s not always like this.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: You played in the UK in september, october and november, almost every single day in a different place!

Jon Irabagon: Yes. I mean, as musicians we are thankful when the situation comes up and you just can play concerts constantly and there are not too many days off. At these couple of months I was in the UK for two weeks and at the end of that I joined another tour which was mostly in Belgium for a week and a half. Then I had to got to get home for Thanksgiving for a couple of days and now I’m back here in Germany with Barry Altschul and Joe Fonda. Then I will get home for a couple of days and then will continue touring with Rudy Royston’s Rise of Orion Trio. It’s just been nuts and it’s really not always like that. But when it does come up, we are very thankful for it. First, traveling around the world gives us the opportunity to see many places. But also we get to work on our music and after playing for most nights for the last month and a half, you start try different things, you start experimenting a bit more, you definitely notice the chance you are playing. I’m really happy when those things happen.

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Bernd Ihno Eilts: Do you also have a private life in this busy touring period?

Jon Irabagon: Oh yeah! Actually I just got married in August 2016 (laughing)!

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Wow! Congratulations!

Jon Irabagon: Thank you!

Bernd Ihno Eilts: How does your wife think about your busy life?

Jon Irabagon: It’s really nuts. We knew that this would come out, but the first half of October we went on our honeymoon. We had two weeks in Cambodia. We just got prepared for this crazy period and when January comes I will be pretty much in New York. Luckely she is very understanding, she is very cool (laughing). So, it’s working out. She knew me already! Also we have Skype and WhatsApp and with all these internet access things it is really easy to stay in touch. It is definitely easier to stay in touch now than it probably was maybe 15 years ago.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: You are not together anymore in the group Mostly Other People Do The Killing (MOPDTK)?

Jon Irabagon: That is correct.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Why, if I may ask?

Jon Irabagon: Hmmm..

Bernd Ihno Eilts: How is the beer?

Jon Irabagon: Great (laughing).

Bernd Ihno Eilts: It’s even a big one!

Jon Irabagon (Barry Altschul’s 3Dom Factor) live at Kulturspeicher in Leer, Germany – 2016. Photo by Willem Schwertmann.

Jon Irabagon: Yeah, I didn’t expect a big beer. And to answer your question, we played together for about 10 years. I felt, the way it was going, we also had some personal issues going on amongst different things that aren’t really that important, but there were certain writings on the wall like: we could keep the way things are going as it is or we can just make a little move, a slight change and it seemed it was probably a better move. Moppa is still one of my favorite people and I try to hangout with him as much as possible. We definitely will be playing together in other situations for sure, I will make sure of that. But with that instrumentation, with that band concept I think ten years was a lot and we are just trying to move on.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: To move on and do something different.

Jon Irabagon: Yes.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Just recently I read, people say, you are the new Sonny Rollins.

Jon Irabagon: (Laughing out loud!) Well..

Bernd Ihno Eilts: What do you think about that?

Jon Irabagon: I think (laughing), there are for sure tons of differences between Sonny and I. When he arrived as a professional musician, he sounded like Sonny already. He was fully formed. He was a complete musician from the top to the bottom, immediately, as a teenager. I definitely am not that (laughing). I’m still trying to improve, I’m still trying to get my act together. It’s not exactly the same. I think, for me it’s for sure a big compliment and I take it, but it’s definitely not true (laughing out loud!). He is a huge influence on me and I think another difference is that, when Sonny arrived and already was fully formed, he was unique already. He was an individual voice and I think my method and how I’m turned on my music and what excites me about jazz and improvising is that I like finding, delving in the worlds of all these people, all these masters including Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Joe Lovano, Von Freeman, Eddie Harris and all these guys. For me, I want to have a lifetime in music, which means that in these days you can become 70, 75 maybe 80 years old. That means I still have a lot of time, hopefully, to stay in music.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: How old are you now?

Jon Irabagon: I’m 38 now. And I like to delve into the music of these people and really like to inhabit those worlds. I have to build my own voice and I’m definitely working towards that. I am afraid to say that, but Sonny Rollins is a huge influence for me. In both of those regards I’m not the new Sonny Rollins, but it is very flattering (laughing).

Bernd Ihno Eilts: I think, it is because of the new generation of musicians. The older heroes are leaving us slowly, so we need of course some new ones!

Jon Irabagon: Yeah!

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Some very incredible new people who have the sound that we need to live our lives!

Jon Irabagon: Definitely!

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Bernd Ihno Eilts: When I saw this beautiful quote I thought that’s really cool!

Jon Irabagon: Oh man, that is very flattering and something like that, it’s humbling and it really makes me well. If that’s the level, if that is the category people are trying to say about my music then man, I got a lot of work to do! Sonny worked really hard, you know?

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Exactly! No more honeymoons!

Jon Irabagon: (Laughing out very loud!) Yes, that’s out of the way.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: You studied at the Lincoln Center?

Jon Irabagon: Yes, at Julliards.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Under the direction of Wynton Marsalis? What did you learn there? Did you learn something from him directly?

Jon Irabagon: Well, you know, it was interesting. Because I moved to New York in 2001 and went to the Manhattan School of Music. I got my Masters there and didn’t know what was going on there at all. I just knew that Dick Oatts, multi-instrumentalist at the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, was teaching there. I wanted to become his student, that’s why I moved to New York. I was there for two years and I studied with Oatts and also had several classes with Dave Liebman and Michael Abbanny and people like them. When I went to the Julliard School to get my artists diploma the following two years, Wynton was part of the program but Victor Goines, one of his saxophone players, was running the program from day to day. I also got private lessons from him. Together, the Manhattan School of Music and the Julliard School experiences were like the Yin and Yang of jazz for me, they were tailormade and perfect fitting together. They stretch different aspects of the jazz world. Everyone knows Dave Liebman and what he represents and where he comes from with his music. It was incredible to see that level day in-day out and to deal with that. And I had to say: that’s the level that’s out there right now, how can I try to rise up to that level?

Then, two years later I got to hangout with people like Victor Goines and Wynton Marsalis and saw their angle on what jazz is. And saw that their level for what they’re trying to get across is exactly the same degree of world class, the high level. That was a lot of responsibility for a jazz musician in the 2000s. Because there are several generations of musicians that have just raised the level in very respective viewpoints. To such a high level, that if we’re gonna try to carry on this music and champion it, then we have to kind of rise up to those levels. For me, seeing Wynton Marsalis on top of being an incredible trumpet player, composer and knowing the complete history of music was and is just great. On top of all that stuff his time feel, the way he plays time is incredible! It’s just as definitive as someone like Steve Coleman‘s time. They both have worked on their time feel as crazy and you can hear it when they play. Even as ideological and philosophical some people might have different viewpoints. But the level that each of these musicians I’m talking about just now, is so inspiring and it is humbling to try to work towards those things.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: What especially did you learn there what makes your sound even today?

Jon Irabagon: There was for sure that aspect to respect tradition and learning it from within. Transcribing or whatever your method is, but from really getting into the vibe and the voice and the soul of the people that are heroes. And they really stressed that. But at the same time, if you listen to Wynton’s bandplay, they play anything cliché. Very very much back on something very much known vocabulary. They are still playing themselves. It took me being around that scene for about a year and a half before I realized, and I put these two things together and actually, they are saying these things about the tradition and transcribe and learn and that’s what jazz is. I think they have to have a certain level of acceleration and already get their point across to the public or to younger jazz musicians, who really just want to do their own thing. But their idea of really truly aesthetically learn the music from within, and then coming up with their own thing through that, that really sticks with me and I’m still a big fan of that.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: You also performed with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra?

Jon Irabagon: Yes, two or three weeks ago, as a guest!

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Bernd Ihno Eilts: How was that?

Jon Irabagon: It was incredible! My teacher Victor Goines, he was assigned to run the bigband that week and he picked a program of music from the jazz age and the second half of the program was a suite that he was commissioned to write. And I was a guest soloist on this suite. There were five or six movements, all different kinds of styles within that era. And to get to hangout with those guys for a week was really special. Get to talk to Wynton! You know, he eats and sleeps and breathes music. He talked a lot of his angle of this music. And wether your angle is the same or not, you have to give it up because his top access is complete and he knows exactly how to follow through and where it’s coming from. Actually I had a good talk with them at the end of the week and we talked a lot about being a musician and following your own path. When I left there, we talked about following your own path and when I talked to Wayne Shorter about five or six years ago, he said exactly the same thing! You have to follow your own path! If both Wynton Marsalis and Wayne Shorter answer like even John Zorn, who I also played with that same week, when all these people are talking about finding your own path, there is something to that. Whatever little details about finding someone’s path, that’s for them. But as long as the overall goal is the same then I can really respect that.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: You are involved in many different projects, even your own amazing music. And you are also a composer. How do you compose, do you have a ritual, do you need your saxophone or a piano, a computer program, do you sing something in your phone when you are touring, how does it work for you?

Jon Irabagon: Well, usually I need to be with the piano to compose. But like in these days, when I’m traveling for a long while like right now with a lot of different musicians, then you get into this groove. You know, I was talking about being thankful when being on the road and improve every day and get the chance to get our music out there. I found that after a couple of weeks on the road you are in this special groove and you feel the music and you think about music all the time, I kind of wake up with different melodies in my head. And having this for the last days in the row I have to make sure to have my voice recorder on my phone ready to go and then sing all these ideas into my phone. The next time on the piano or the next time I have time with my saxophone I transcribe these melodies from the phone and then those will be the basis from when I get home. Then I have like 15 or 20 tunes I can start to work on. That’s the method for these days. But also I found for myself personally easier to write music for specific bands and if I have a specific project that I’m writing for coming up. I was very fortunate John Zorn gave me one week at his avant-garde performance club, The Stone in NYC, this coming march. We will play 6 nights in a row of my own music and I can put together whatever bands I want, present other bands I like. I will have six different ensembles coming in and writing music for almost all of them. These days I’m really focused on completing a whole set of music for these different ensembles with different specific people in mind. For me that makes it a little bit easier to get the ball running.

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Bernd Ihno Eilts: You will study their music already upfront? Do you compose in their specific way or how?

Jon Irabagon: Yes, yes. I mean, for the most part I have an idea of what they do sonically and philosophically and try to write towards that. Sometimes I have an idea what I want to melt 100 procent with where I feel that they’re coming from. I like that rub where it’s not exactly their thing. And I like seeing where they’re gonna come from with these kinds of things. For example: in 2012 I put out a record called “Outright! Unhinged” with Ralph Alessi, Jacob Sacks, John Hebert, Tom Rainy and special guests. It is an album, part of a series of records that I’m calling “Outright!” Their styles are based on whatever instrument I’m playing. My very first record as a leader was the “Outright Alto” album and this record I’m telling about in 2012 “Unhinged” was my “Outright Tenor” album. Like this I write a tune in a lot of different styles around different tenor players that have inspired me and make and help me play the way I play. For some of that stuff Michael Brecker is a huge influence like he is for almost every modern tenor saxophonist. I wrote a tune like the Brecker Brothers fusioning kind of style. And Tom Rainey, who was my drummer on that album, made me feel very curious. I really wanted to hear him playing that specific kind of fusion style. I love and respect his music so much, I knew something great was gonna come out. I just couldn’t envision what that was, because I couldn’t hear Tom playing like that. But I always have the faith and trust in whatever musicians I’m gonna hire. They might not be 100 percent what I’m hearing in my head, but that’s the beauty of it. They are bringing their voice to it and they are bringing their personality to it and that’s kind of what I want in music.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: You recently had your first solo sopranino concert. Is that a small soprano saxophone?

Jon Irabagon: Yes, it’s the smallest member of the saxophone family besides the soprillo, which most of the people don’t even know, they consider that as a saxophone. But this one is an E-flat instrument and it sounds an octave higher than the alto saxophone. I started playing on alto when I was younger and I still play alto a lot. For me, the alto saxophone is a very special instrument. The difference between the E-flat horns and B-flat ones. The E-flat one is a little bit more lazy in its projection of the sound for whatever reason that is. The sopranino takes that high register and adds that quality to it.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: With how many fingers you play this instrument?

Jon Irabagon: It’s the same situation like any other saxophone. It’s the same thing. It’s just really high pitched (laughing). There are a lot of possibilities for me in there. I love the way it just pierces through things, it can be the most annoying instrument in the world, which I love. But also, because it’s so small, and because for me at least, there is no real history of that instrument, for whatever reason in my mind that really freaks me up to experiment to all ends with that instrument. Just anything goes with the sopranino, I definitely feel a special connection with it.

I always wanted to do a solo saxophone project, because “For Alto” by Anthony Braxton and another one by John Zorn (The Classic Guide to Strategy) already exists. I studied solo saxophone and solo recordings a lot. I always wanted to do one but kept shunning away from it. But in the end of the year 2013 I decided I’m going do this. I worked really hard with this sopranino and was hoping to come up with something that I’ve to be proud of in the end. Then, at the end of 2013 I was ready to work all the year 2014 on this solo record, called “Inaction is an Action”. All 2014 until Christmas time I was working diligently on the solo sopranino experimental sounds and things. A few days before New Year’s Eve I recorded it all in Chicago in a church. Then it came out late 2015. It really opened up my eyes to allow different angles and different tendencies of my playing. I have a lot of students and they ask specific questions about how to get better faster, what they can do to change their playing and man, preparing solo concerts for me really changed my philosophy behind the music.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: It’s true, Anthony Braxton also did really a lot of solo work. Do you see yourself also a bit like following his path, his history? To search for new ways in performing art?

Jon Irabagon: Yes! I mean, the solo thing is so important as a development tool. Even just as a development tool as a musician. Because you really are totally responsible for every aspect of what’s going on. The timing, the way you feel time when you are playing a solo concert, is completely different. It’s an invaluable experience as a performer and as a musician. But it also interests me trying to come up with different directions for music, trying to learn different techniques on the saxophone that I can transfer into my playing in this group or others. It really brings the level of responsibility to the highest level. That’s what I find is important about it.

Jon Irabagon with Barry Altschul (Barry Altschul’s 3Dom Factor), live at Kulturspeicher in Leer/Germany – 2016. Photo by Willem Schwertmann.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Do you feel free inside, while you perform alone?

Jon Irabagon: Yeah! You can take it in any way and I talked to a great trumpet player about this thing and he really likes to keep it open for most of the part. Important is to be really true to yourself and to the music and the improvisation.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Do you have moments, where you can get rid of all those sounds you have in your head and your body? Do you have moments that there is silence?

Jon Irabagon: Yes, I do have. At a certain point you have to turn it off and reset.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: And it’s possible?

Jon Irabagon: Yeah! I think so! If you have some hobbies outside of music.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Matthew Moppa Elliot for example is doing fishing!

Jon Irabagon: Moppa fishes, yes. I swim, I play chess, I try to learn french, I watch movies, read books, go to baseball games, Moppa and I go to see baseball games a lot. You need to have things to turn it off, because you need to feel fresh when you come back to music. Then you can see things in a new light. I definitely believe that.

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Bernd Ihno Eilts: You also have vacation?

Jon Irabagon: Yes, for sure. When this month of gigs is over, then I will not think about music at all. It’s been a really glowing run, but it’s been amazing and I really learned a lot, but it needs to stop for at least a little while. The best musicians do have a balance of some sort.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: How did you meet, with these musicians you play here tonight in the german east frisian city Leer, with Joe Fonda and with Barry Altschul?

Jon Irabagon: When I was in college, I heard the record “Conference of the birds”, the Dave Holland record. And I was wondering who this drummer was. Perfect integration, percussion sounds, drumset sounds, totally with it, open, free, great sounds, that was Barry Altschul. When I moved to New York in 2001, I heard Barry was living there at the opposite side. I have a friend, who plays trombone, named Sam Kulick, who is curating a week at The Stone (, I think it was december 2009. He wanted to organize a trio with me, Moppa Elliot and Barry Altschul together and we had a great gig together. That was just magic, the history was there, his music was there, his own sound was there. After that I had the big wish to continue playing together. At that time I was studying Sonny Rollins’ music a lot, but I was also studying John Coltrane. Both of them have this tendency on certain nights to play a really long time. Like 40 minutes, 50 minutes long non-stop. I was trying to do a project and in there picking one standard for an entire set. And play all way through the set and see what will happen. Just to check out the possibilities. There are some great venues in NYC where we were allowed to do that and it was cool. I played dozens of times with different drummers and tried different things and I wanted to go to the studio and make a document of it. Because I knew, I wouldn’t be in New York for that long. Barry was open for it and we went to the studio. There we recorded the “Foxy” record, that came out in 2010/2011 and it’s 80 minutes long. Just one tune, non-stop. We finished it, even we had to record for 90 minutes long. We finished it and the bass player and I were completely exhausted and Barry came out and said: Are we doing another take? (Laughing). I said, no way, we did this take and that’s it. Barry is a perfect blend of being one of the guys who created this music, no one in history have a complete knowledge of this instrument and how to get around with it. Barry Altschul has an open mind, he is open and very alive in different kinds of music, in different possibilities, it’s just an honor to have been playing with him for such a long time. He was in my group with that and then I catched him and I got Marc Helias to play bass. Because I wanted to hear them both playing some of my original music. So we tranferred from playing standards to playing my original music and Barry and Marc have done a great job with that. At some point Barry wanted to put his own band together (Barry Altschul’s 3Dom Factor) and asked me to be a part of it, which was a huge honor and a huge privilege to be asked to join this trio. We made two records, we’ve done several tours through the United States and Europe now. It just continues to grow.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: It’s booked a lot!

Jon Irabagon: It’s a beautiful thing. Barry is 73 years old now. He is still playing every night, he’s still plying out new things that I’ve never heard before. Some still cracking up and laughing, this is just amazing. It really pinch myself.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: How is the atmosphere between you three?

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Jon Irabagon: It’s beautiful. Joe and Barry are playing together for a dozen of years or so, I guess even 15 years. I have this history with Barry for the last 5 or 6 years. Those two guys have seen so much, played and traveled so much, they have stories! Never ending stories! When you travel 8 hours on a train, you really have time to talk. They say: You know this person? Then there are 5 hours and they are still talking (laughing). For me, as a not that young musician anymore but I’m still growing and I’m still trying to get better and figure out my way, hearing all these stories with the actual people who formed the music, is an invaluable experience for me to get to hang with these guys in this time. You know, it’s the same with getting to play with Dave Douglas and his band. He has been way longer than I have in New York and he carved his own niche immediately and he is one of the first guys who created his own label. Even touring with him, when that happens, I got to keep my ears open, I got to learn as much as I can. At all times.

Barry “There’s No Greater Love” Altschul (Barry Altschul’s 3Dom Factor) live at Kulturspeicher, Leer/Germany – 2016. Photo by Willem Schwertmann.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: On tour, you have a lot of time in between, travel, many hours in the train, the car, then you have time to talk?

Jon Irabagon: It depends on the days. Sometimes people want to do their own thing, sometimes at night, if you don’t have a gig, people just go to do their own thing. But at certain times we feel like hanging, we create a lot of this great camaraderie, that exists and can happen in those times. For example, what happened in that band MOPDTK when we were starting, a lot of the reasons the band in whichever directions it went, whatever falled up, which angles the band had was because of the four of us were hanging out, talking about what we see in music, what kind of music we like, all we think is cool about music or what we feel about we could throw away in music and what doesn’t exist enough in music. Through all those talks the music came out the way it did with these four pretty beautiful people, very specific people. Every band has this at a certain degree. Hanging can be really important.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: But touring that much is also stressing, right? Do you still know how to find the light switch in your hotel room?

Jon Irabagon: (Laughing very much!)

Bernd Ihno Eilts: You are sleeping every single night in a different room, in a different house. I heard a story from a very famous dutch piano player, his name is Peter Beets. He told me about the touring schedule of Larry Grenadier, who is on the road for 9 months a year. He is changing his room every single night. Sometimes he has big problems to find the light switcher!

Jon Irabagon: (Laughing very much again!)

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Do you have kind of the same stories to share?

Jon Irabagon: Sometimes you just wake up and you have no idea where you are (laughing very much). I can’t remember who said this, but they say: you don’t get paid to play the music you play, you get paid to travel (laughing). So, that’s the work. Doing all these travel days and waking up in different hotel rooms and stuff. That’s the sacrifice you make to try to get this music up there. It’s not that difficult for everyone. We played with this band an amazing gig a couple of nights ago in Switzerland, in Basel. There is a sculptor named Jean Tinguely (1925 – 1991) and we improvised to his sound sculptures. There were five gigantic sound sculptures in the room around us and we turned on and off randomly and improvised and played together with these sculptures. That experience could not be reproduced anywhere else and I could never imagine that these moments would ever happening. But it was life changing! It was an amazing experience. So, we have things like that or you have gigs where the music is just flowing out when you are on stage and it just feels completely easy and well. And those nights, you go to sleep easy. Because you know this is why you do what you do. Not every night is like that. But the ones they are you know, this is worth it, this is why I do it.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Did you record that special concert in Basel?

Jon Irabagon: I think someone has some clips of it online. It’s up in the air somewhere (laughing).

Joe Fonda (Barry Altschul’s 3Dom Factor) live at Kulturspeicher in Leer/Germany – 2016. Photo by Willem Schwertmann.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Do you have some kind of ritual, before you start your gig? And maybe even after? Do you take your time and concentrate, you meditate or drink a beer?

Jon Irabagon: It’s different every time. I think, at some point after the gig or the next morning or on the train the next day, I want to think about what happened on the gig. And see if there is anything I can improve next time. Or if it worked very well, at least take a note of those reactions. Sometimes on a gig all these new things you play or some new device I use in some different way I combine with some other things which I never thought of and it just happened in the moment. So I try the next day to remember to do it on purpose, to try to make it part of the repertoire. But, there is nothing set, I feel like there should be a time for reflections so you can improve as fast as you can. And as honestly as you can. But there is nothing set, because I feel like that. For my personality I would just have it like that.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: What especially do you teach and where do you teach your students?

Jon Irabagon: I teach at the New School in New York, I have a couple of students each semester there. Then I teach also some students in private right now. I used to teach ensembles and classes but at this point I only have just some spare time and space for private lessons. I try to make sure the students come in, to make it as individual as possible. I try to help very well, if they don’t have a direction for what they want to do with their music, that’s priority number one. You have to find some goals for them, figure out what they want to say with music. If they only want to play bebop and want to become really great bebop players, there is no real reason for them to be checking out some free improvising jazz or some noise music or something like that. So, we have to find out together, what they want to do and then hopefully try to tailor the lessons towards them. Because the teacher has to try to get the student where he needs to go. I try to be as much individualistic as possible with the students. So far it works out very well.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: If you could imagine, I am a student, what general advice would you give? If I just started and want to get further with music, just a general advice?

Jon Irabagon: I would say: if you don’t have short term, mid term and long term goals, for what kind of music you want to come up with, you’ve got to come up with those now. There is no sense in waiting. The longer you wait, the longer you will not have your own voice in music. If you want to be as specific as possible, try to be able to articulate exactly where you want to go, and that might even change. When you wake up a couple of months from now you might see, you hate where you are going. As long as you have a direction, if you have some goals, you are actually working towards something as supposed to just practicing for 8 hours and just doing what people tell you to practice. Those eight hours will go by super fast, if you already are working on things that are gonna help you to get to your goals. I think, that’s definitely the number one thing I would work on with any student that I have, even with you. And, when the students have those goals and I’m able to see what those are, the things that the student needs to work on becomes really obvious and clear. Then it’s just a matter of trying to encourage them and keep working on them.

Bernd Ihno Eilts: Thank you very much!

Jon Irabagon: Cool! My pleasure!

Bernd Ihno Eilts with Jon Irabagon (Barry Altschul’s 3Dom Factor) at Kulturspeicher Leer/Germany – 2016. Photo by Willem Schwertmann.

Interview: Bernd Ihno Eilts
Photography: Willem Schwertmann (Groningen)

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