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    Jon Irabagon Talks and Plays Don Cherry/Sonny Rollins "Oleo"


There is a well-founded, but slightly revisionist, tendency to define Sonny Rollins as a burly toned rollicking bebop tenor saxophonist. Over the span of his long career, he has certainly worked often in this area, firing off long and inventive lines of eighth notes––slightly on top of the beat––over swinging rhythm sections. However, there is a transcendental quality to Rollins’s playing that separates him from other saxophonists of the same era: an almost pathological need to push the boundaries of his own creative energy.

Arguably at the height of his prowess, the early 1960s was one of Rollins’s most fertile and revolutionary periods. Beginning with his triumphant return from a self-imposed hiatus with The Bridge, Rollins sought to explode the boundaries by exploring every corner of the American songbook as well as a handful of his own compositions, such as his famous “Oleo,” now a modern classic, based on the chord changes to “I Got Rhythm.” Recordings such as Sonny Meets Hawk with elder statesman Coleman Hawkins or the free-wheeling East Broadway Rundown became structures within which Rollins could test the boundaries of jazz music. Not surprisingly, one of the central documents of this period of experimentation features this issue’s main subject, Don Cherry.

Our Man In Jazz and the recent Complete Village Gate Recordings from which it was culled captures a group in the thralls of complete freedom. Nothing is off limits as the quartet careens through off the beaten path standards such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Dearly Beloved,” as well as attempts at completely free or modular compositions. The highlights, however, are four versions of the aforementioned “Oleo,” which play between breakneck swing, semi-coordinated interludes, and moments of staticly searching free playing.

In many ways, saxophonist Jon Irabagon could be held up as an heir apparent to Rollins. His virtuosic technique and tree trunk–thick sound are dead giveaways that he has spent time studying the older saxophonist, but it is his attitude that cements the lineage. Known for his work with everyone from Dave Douglas to Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Irabagon is constantly at the boundary of what constitutes jazz. He is consistently working to burst his own physical and creative limits, regardless of the surrounding musical landscape.

When asked to take part in this issue, Irabagon told Sound American that he had just been given the above-mentioned recordings as a gift and was only then beginning to delve deeply into the box set of the quartet’s performances from The Village Gate. A couple of weeks later, he had already come upon some very concrete conclusions about Cherry’s role as a “second voice” to Rollins’s temporally and sonically dominant tenor sound. The younger saxophonist took the four versions of “Oleo” as his model, providing an insight to the variations Rollins would play while Cherry, generally thought of as the “freer” of the two, holds down the melody and harmony of the composition. The trumpeter, in the way he plays, provides both the inspiration and the stability necessary for Rollins to take flight.

On a sunny afternoon, Irabagon and Sound American editor Nate Wooley got together in the latter’s Brooklyn apartment to talk Sonny and Don and, after dealing with an errant car alarm, to record the saxophonist’s loving and beautifully swinging solo version of “Oleo.”


Jon Irabagon, winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition, has been named both Rising Star Alto Saxophone and Rising Star Tenor Saxophone in Downbeat Magazine, and was named one of New York City's Top 25 Jazz Icons in Time Out New York.  Jon recently started his own imprint, Irabbagast Records, and the first release, Outright! Unhinged was given the rare 5-star Masterpiece rating in Downbeat Magazine.  Jon currently tours with his trio with Barry Altschul and Mark Helias and can be found on stage with Mostly Other People do the Killing as well as the bands of Dave Douglas, Mary Halvorson, Barry Altschul, Mike Pride and Rudy Royston.