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Saxophonist Jon Irabagon Plays With Heart On 'Dr. Quixotic's Traveling Exotics'


This is FRESH AIR. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon was making his name even before he won the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition in 2008 by playing with the seriocomic jazz quintet Mostly Other People Do The Killing. Irabagon has since left that band, though he still works for leaders such as Barry Altschul, Dave Douglas and Mary Halvorson. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Irabagon's own records can get a little bizarre, but on his new album, he's mostly well-behaved.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Jon Irabagon can be hard to get a fix on. He likes it like that. He can play pretty, obviously, and reveres and occasionally employs some overlooked jazz masters. His own records can get strange. One 12-track album turned out to be a continuous 78-minute saxophone solo over boiling rhythm. He strikes a nice balance on his mildly subversive new album, "Dr. Quixotic's Traveling Exotics." It's by his quartet, including the terrific drummer Rudy Royston, who's having a field day. Sitting in most of the time is Irabagon hero Tim Hagans, whose trumpet cuts through like a freshly-sharpened blade.


WHITEHEAD: The little melodic hooks Jon Irabagon writes snap the musicians into action, and he'll introduce new themes over the course of a piece for variety and extra stimulation. There are a few uncommon touches like having the whole band play behind a bass solo by Yasushi Nakamura.


WHITEHEAD: In Jon Irabagon's music, the weather can change fast. Storms may quickly blow up and blow over as the wind shifts. This is from the middle of "Emotional Physics."


WHITEHEAD: Luis Perdomo on piano. A little later in that same performance, during one frenzied episode, a trap door opens and suddenly the saxophonist is jamming on the chords to the standard "All The Things You Are." Somehow it's the album's weirdest and most traditional moment.


WHITEHEAD: The album "Dr. Quixotic's Traveling Exotics" was recorded in an Argentine studio during the band's 2016 South American tour. The music sounds lived in and like the musicians enjoy the drill. Jon Irabagon brings an infectious sense of fun to music making, even when the playing is dead serious, sort of like the great Sonny Rollins. Jon Irabagon plays like he's got a lot of heart to go with his power chops.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Dr. Quixotic's Traveling Exotics" by saxophonist Jon Irabagon. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be former Vogue creative director and "America's Next Top Model" judge Andre Leon Talley. We'll talk about being raised by his grandmother in a home with no central heating in the Jim Crow South, how he found a home in the world of international fashion and how he's seen that world change. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.