Jon Irabagon: Endless Possibilities

by Troy Collins

Jon Irabagon                                                                                                                © 2019 Bryan Murray

Saxophonist Jon Irabagon has demonstrated a keen ability to circumvent expectations, repeatedly reinterpreting the tried-and-true from unexpected angles. Willfully subverting convention, he deconstructs established jazz tenets from within, maintaining a swinging old school approach all the while. His full-bodied tone and assured articulation evoke Rollins or Shorter as readily as Adderley or Stitt, although his unfettered solo flights often diverge from sleek boppish lines and free-form rhapsodies to genre-specific phrases culled from non-jazz idioms ranging from country blues to doom metal. A pan-stylistic improviser for a new era, Irabagon’s imagination has proven to be limitless.

Winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition, Irabagon has since topped both the Rising Star Alto and Tenor Saxophone categories in the DownBeat Magazine Critics’ Poll, been selected one of Time Out New York’s 25 New York City Jazz Icons, and was named 2012 Musician of the Year in The New York City Jazz Record. As an educator who has led masterclasses around the globe and residencies at major colleges, Irabagon is the recipient of numerous grants, including three Shifting Foundation projects, a French-American Cultural Exchange grant from the Mid-Atlantic Foundation, and a grant through the Stone Commissioning Series at National Sawdust.

Irabagon has performed and recorded with an array of talent, encompassing everyone from Wynton Marsalis and Evan Parker to Billy Joel and Lou Reed. Formerly of Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Irabagon is currently a member of high-profile ensembles like Barry Altschul’s 3Dom Factor, the Dave Douglas Quintet, and the Mary Halvorson Quintet, Septet, and Octet – in addition to leading his own bands. Irabagon’s longstanding Quartet features Luis Perdomo, Yasushi Nakamura and Rudy Royston, while his trio includes Mark Helias and Altschul. An independent artist, Irabagon has released six albums on his own imprint, Irabbagast Records; the most recent being Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics (with his Quartet and special guest Tim Hagans). I interviewed Irabagon in the winter of 2019, at the beginning of another year filled with upcoming projects.


Troy Collins: Some biographical information might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with your formative background. How did you get your start playing music?

Jon Irabagon: My aunt started giving me piano lessons when I was fairly young, and I picked up alto saxophone in 5th grade. I wanted to play trumpet but there were too many trumpet players already, so alto saxophone it was. Due to tons of video games and piano lessons, the technical and reading music sides of the saxophone came easily, and as such I didn’t really put much time into it or think about it much. It wasn’t until I reached high school when my band director, Tom Beckwith, introduced me to Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, and Sonny Rollins, and I was hooked.

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and in hindsight the great Chicago tenor saxophone tradition, as well as the experimental philosophies of the AACM, weigh heavily into my attitude and outlook on music and improvisation.

TC: I’m curious – because this may be a generational thing – but how do you feel playing video games as a child influenced and/or aided in your learning to play a musical instrument?

JI: It wasn’t a conscious thing or anything like that. But I was playing a bunch of video games and it was helping some hand/eye coordination in hindsight. But I have had a bunch of students who use that as a crutch and they’re not getting any better, so it’s not totally correlated for sure. Ha ha!

Some of the video game music at the time was really catchy and tricky in their own ways, and I would try to figure that out on saxophone while other students were still trying to figure out fingerings or easy rhythms or something. So that kind of ear training with songs I had heard a lot helped me for sure.

But I will say that the video games, as well as books and movies, helped keep my imagination moving along, which I can say definitely DID aid my musical and improvisational growth. Of course, I didn’t realize that until later, but it all helped.

TC: I’m interested in the idea that one art form can inspire or influence another, especially when one form is narrative (books, movies, etc.) and the other is more abstract (instrumental music, for example). What video games, books and/or movies inspired your music making during your younger, formative years?

JI: Ha ha, I don’t want to make TOO much out of my old video game ways, but there was a Tetris rip off game called Dr. Mario and we had some epic two player battles. You’d hurt your opponent if you could get rid of a couple of sets of colors at the same time, so we started trying to concoct ways to get extra chances to screw our opponent over. We got so into it that we would go to sleep seeing the pieces falling. I wound up trying to create elaborate setups that would eventually get rid of five, six or seven color sets simultaneously; totally overdid the whole thing. But that kind of attitude and experimentation definitely blends into my attitudes on improvising and music.

I would also go to the Art Institute of Chicago several times a year when I was growing up. Way in the back corner in a remote section they have a Gerhard Richter painting that isn’t one of his more well-known ones entitled Mrs. Wolleh with Children, and even as a kid I knew there was something about that painting that really got to me. Some practice sessions I would just try to improvise on whatever I felt that painting was saying or whatever. I’d do the same thing when thinking about some of David Foster Wallace’s writing. So those things definitely meld into my playing and philosophy. The beautiful thing about using different mediums as a basis is that it’s by definition so interpretive that you can’t help but get closer to finding out what makes you you.

TC: That’s a beautiful way to put that realization. I’d like to dig a little deeper into specifics. As an art school graduate, I’m very familiar with Gerhard Richter’s work, but had never seen the painting you mentioned until looking it up. What did you think that painting was about and how did you try to interpret it, musically?

JI: Well, I was never one of those people who would go to the museum and stare at the art and be able to connect what they saw to the universe, or anything like that. But with that painting, for the first time, I saw some mystery, and thought that the artist knew there were several ways the viewer could go with it. So, I started asking questions: Why these colors? Why these shades of that color? What is the expression on the woman’s face today? It’s fogged over so you can’t really tell ... but does her stance give any clues? How about the children? Are they relaxed or are they squirmy? The mother is probably reacting to them in some way. Is the fog because they are from some other time and place? Or is it really just foggy today? And depending on what I could remember at the time about it, I’d go home and try to play those colors, and those shades of those colors. And I’d try to play with a stateliness that I thought the woman had. But sometimes I thought maybe she was sad in the painting, so my playing would go that direction. Could I find a way to make the fog sound through my horn? What if these people were from the past? Could I play in a way that is reaching through time, like the painting was doing for me?

It’s all really abstract, but playing with those types of questions in mind with no correct answer was appealing and fun for me during those years of practice. If I had to learn a standard at the time for school or for a group, that was totally fine. How could I funnel “All The Things You Are” through this crazy, half-abstracted painting?

Some of the work I did in that regard maybe led to a dead end of some type. But the effort of going through it opened-up other doors that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, and those doors led to some of the main aspects of what I play today. In talking to and reading interviews with many of the people I admire in this music, this sense of wonder and curiosity seems to come hand in hand with adventurous playing. People like Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter have mentioned these extra-musical musings and how they affected their practicing, improvising and composing.

TC: You mentioned earlier that your high school band director introduced you to Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, and Sonny Rollins. It’s obvious, even to a layperson, that Rollins was probably a formative influence on your playing. What was it about Rollins that appealed to you more than other icons, like say Hawkins, Coltrane or Shorter?

JI: Rollins’ flowing lines, catchy rhythmic style and overall sense of daring is what drew me to him initially.

Though I started on alto, I realized early on that Chicago is indeed a tenor town, so I started dabbling in it. At a certain point, I realized, I’d either better stop playing it altogether or get serious about it if I wanted to pursue it. I realized I had several holes in my playing, and one of them at the time was the history and lineage of the tenor. So, I set out to do transcription projects where I could really inhabit these masters’ zones for months at a time. Hawkins, Lester, Dexter, Wayne, Mobley, Rollins, Trane, Marsh, etc. It took a long time, and my overall goals from improvisation and music morphed over that period, partially because of all this transcription work and partially from all the groups and ensembles I had started touring with.

Anyways, there were several solos during the Rollins phase that turned my whole improv world upside down. There was one particular solo (I can’t currently recall the exact one) where I heard Rollins play what I eventually thought of as a “Rollins stamp,” where he played a particular phrase in the same part of the form, chorus after chorus after chorus, while the rest of his solo grew and changed naturally. It’s like he left that one particular phrase behind and it was an artifact that just kept appearing, even though everything else had expanded. This realization blew my mind; I had never considered improvising in a manner like this, but it made total sense to me. Take everything everyone always mentions about jazz improvisation – following the line, growing out of melodies and sounding natural and relaxed the whole time – but then throwing in this one extra wrinkle. Can you stay in time and keep your flow going but also keep one phrase in your back pocket and keep producing it at the same place in the form every chorus, without disrupting the flow of the rest of your improvisation?

When I tried doing something like this, I couldn’t do it. At all. So, I worked on it for months. Over standards, freely improvising, in groups, as part of a solo set ... any opportunity I had the chance, I would try, because this idea was something that was challenging to me. It felt similar to those extra exercises I had tried to do in that Dr. Mario game, but something I could wind up actually using somewhere.

Eventually I was able to get a version going of it that I enjoyed. At the time I was playing weekly with drummer Mike Pride, and we went into the studio to record the results. The album, I Don’t Hear Nothin’ but the Blues (Loyal Label) and its follow up, Appalachian Haze (Irabbagast) grew out of this “Rollins stamp” idea, though they sound almost nothing like Rollins. This is also a zone I can get into in different situations at any time, so it was work worth doing, and has been very useful for me.

The addendum to the story though is that I had an opportunity to interview Sonny a few years ago and I excitedly and proudly brought up my “Rollins stamp” idea to see if I was anywhere close to what he had come up with. He belly laughed so hard I thought he was gonna’ get hurt. He said he couldn’t remember that song or solo, but that there was probably no way he would have thought about it like I interpreted. He gave me other examples of outside-the-box things he was working on during his earlier years (like circular breathing, just playing into the mouthpiece, etc.) and I have heard stories about him and changing fashion or outfits to try to get his playing to change, but he said he wouldn’t have thought of the “stamp” method.

I was heartbroken. I had spent so much of my practice time on this idea. I actually didn’t practice for several weeks after that. But eventually I realized that my interpretation of the “Rollins stamp” is the ENTIRE POINT of studying the masters, once you’re done thinking about copping vocabulary or sound or whatever. It became a strength that my interpretation was so off, so ever since, I’ve been trying take any interpretation I find and expand on them, hoping to uncover more of “me” in the process.

TC: Wow, what an incredible story. Innovation through misinterpretation – which also lends credence to the “there are no mistakes” theory of free improvisation, where one person’s choice begets another’s and so on. Speaking of which, what are your thoughts regarding “pure” free improvisation, compared to more traditional theme and variations-based strategies? And how do you negotiate the differences between the two in different performance settings?

JI: The different methods of playing free all have validity and are all the “right” course of action at one point or another, in my view. Because of that, I’ll practice in as many different modes of free that I can think of in order to (hopefully) have unencumbered access to the appropriate kind at the appropriate moment. The goal would be to have gone through different methods so I feel at home with them all and then forget all that preparation and just really play and stay engaged and focused during performance situations.

TC: Although it’s not “free jazz,” your comment reminds me of In Formation Network, the Nuscope trio recording you made last year with trombonist Joe Fiedler and guitarist Todd Neufeld. To my ears, it’s one of the most successful reinterpretations of Jimmy Giuffre’s seminal chamber jazz I’ve had the pleasure to hear, because it isn’t slavish, but rather uses the same instrumental format as a launching point for new, original ideas. Can you tell me how that session came about?

JI: I’ve known Russell Summers (the head of NuScope records) for a while. He actually came up with the idea of putting the three of us together. We had never played together before so it was an interesting mix of personalities and musical directions for sure. It was cool that it drew inspiration from Giuffre and News for Lulu but wasn’t dependent on either.

TC: Yes, the most remarkable thing to me about that date is how perfectly it straddles the chamber-like austerity of Giuffre and the fervency of Zorn. Fiedler seems to have brought a number of pieces to that session, but the most striking cut to me is your inclusion: “Wai’anapanapa.” Can you talk at all about the inspiration for that number?

JI: Sure. Wai’anapanapa is a gorgeous state park in Maui that I was lucky enough to visit a few years ago. What struck me most about it was the simultaneous beauty and violence of the crashing of the waves. I tried capturing some of that essence with this unique instrumentation opportunity and was thrilled with how it turned out.

Actually, I had written another piece for the session, but for various reasons it didn’t make the cut. I’m pretty happy with the tune though, so it will probably appear sometime soon!

TC: That ad hoc session reminds me how the jazz bands of a previous era typically featured long-term personnel for extended tours, although that has largely changed now, for various reasons – both aesthetic and economic. But you managed to work with Mostly Other People Do the Killing for years. What advantages and/or challenges do you find in being a member of a longstanding group?

JI: Obviously, playing long term in an ensemble enables you to become comfortable and really get to know the playing styles and attitudes of your band mates. I suppose the idea of a brand or aesthetic can come out of it as well. There’s a real chance of friendship and camaraderie both on and off the bandstand with longtime groups as well.

I feel like every improvising musician should try to get themselves in at least a couple of long-term playing situations. I’ve really grown, adapted and created my own musical philosophies mostly from these continued interactions. I’ve found you can really take chances and really try to improvise when you’re comfortable with a group of people and have a history with them.

Of course, there’s the flip side of it too. Some people like the groups the way they are and some like to keep exploring. Some might have a different idea for fame and money versus music, etc. That’s why I think trying to develop several groups that last a long time is your best bet. You can get many different ideas and many different aesthetics. Eventually you can find yours and learn more about your own ideas.

TC: I guess the obvious follow-up question, is why did you leave Mostly Other People Do the Killing?

JI: Being in a group for many years is basically like being in a family. Obviously, differing opinions and attitudes come up, and that’s just healthy. Like I said, people grow in different directions and some groups can weather that and some cannot.

That being said, MOPDtK is such an important and formative group for me, and the experiences touring, recording and just plain hanging out with these guys was invaluable for me. I’m still playing and learning from these guys – I’m on Moppa’s newest CD and Peter and I have a duo planned down the line.

If you look at a group like Parker/Guy/Lytton, it’s just amazing the durability they have. And they sound amazing partially because of that!

TC: Moving beyond sideman gigs and collaborative work, as a composer and bandleader, do you typically write parts specifically geared towards your band mates’ strengths or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes themselves are more open to interpretation by different groups of players?

JI: The short answer is both. Some songs are specifically written with certain bandmates in mind. Every song on my latest record, Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics, was written with each of the band members – Tim Hagans, Luis Perdomo, Yasushi Nakamura and Rudy Royston – and their sounds and styles in my ear. I wanted to play to each of their strengths but also have a few moments that would push them past their comfort zones to try to grow the group sound. A previous record, It Takes All Kinds, features Barry Altschul and Mark Helias, and I tried to hear their voices when I wrote those pieces but also kept the pieces as free and open as possible. One of the advantages of having long-term groups as a bandleader is that you can really get to know people’s playing personalities and then try to stretch them (if the music calls for it). I’ve got some ideas to further enhance both of those groups that I’m looking forward to writing and performing.

Other songs, I’m really just writing and want the musicians to interpret the pieces and add their personalities. When I was just finishing school, I wrote dozens of straight-ahead jazz pieces, some of which wound up on a couple of my records (The Observer and Behind the Sky). Those pieces were written with the idea that any rhythm section could play and interpret the pieces.

I’ve also got a new piano quintet coming out in a few months – the Mivos Quartet (Olivia de Prata and Lauren Cauley: violins; Victor Lowrie: viola; Mariel Roberts: cello) are an amazing string quartet that has played with many of my favorite musicians and composers, but I’ve only had limited interaction with them. The piece I wrote, a six movement, 50-minute piece, also features Matt Mitchell on piano, whom I’ve performed with a lot. Because I didn’t really know the string players’ personalities and strengths as well, I just wrote the piece as it was, without adjusting for them specifically. We rehearsed the piece a lot and performed it several times before we recorded it, and each meeting the piece grew and people latched on to different sections, with the improvising really growing into the piece. I’m really happy with how it turned out and am excited to get it into the world.

TC: Interesting. I assume you don’t play on this piano quintet recording? Are you releasing this on your own label?

JI: I’m hoping to have printed copies of the record by April. It’s actually going to be a double disc. The first record will be this piano quintet that I mentioned. I don’t play on that piece, but the record starts and ends with a sopranino quintet (if that’s a thing). So, I wrote a short piece for mouthpiece-less sopranino saxophone and string quartet trying to codify and grow some of the extended techniques I used in my solo sopranino saxophone record Inaction is an Action (Irabbagast), which is the version that starts the record. The record ends with the same string parts but me fully improvising over them.

The second record of the double CD is actually a solo mezzo soprano saxophone record that I recorded at the Vigelund Mausoleum in Oslo, Norway in late 2017. The mezzo soprano saxophone is a really interesting beast – it sounds somewhere between an alto, soprano and an English horn somehow. Anyways, it was a challenge and a thrill to play in the mausoleum, where the reverb lasts about 19 seconds. So, this solo record is completely different from Inaction is an Action – I try to play against the room and sometimes with it, and the extended techniques I found with it are completely different than the ones the sopranino finds its way towards.

These releases weren’t originally going to be a double CD; they were conceived of as different projects. But as they wrapped up production around the same time and I realized that the juxtaposition of me as a composer and me as an improviser was a good one to exploit, I decided to release them together.

TC: Looking forward to hearing those two sets. You’re obviously devoted to the upper register members of the saxophone family, like the soprano, mezzo-soprano and sopranino. Can you talk about what it is that interests you about those horns?

JI: As I mentioned earlier, I started on alto saxophone and, due to Chicago having a long and storied tenor saxophone history, I picked it up to try to play as many different types of gigs as possible.

And as I mentioned after that, I really had to dig in to the tenor saxophone history because as I started doing these gigs on tenor, I realized it’s a totally different language and direction. The instrument itself really lends itself to different directions; it’s hard to put into words. But basically, what works on alto doesn’t necessarily work on tenor and vice versa.

That realization that they’re not really doubles coincided with my taking some lessons with Greg Osby, and those lessons coincided with him selling a sopranino saxophone to me, which completely fascinated me as I started working with it. This thing didn’t do anything the alto OR the tenor did. And in fact, its range and size makes it do completely different things that were completely fascinating to me.

I’ve been interested in solo recordings since the middle of my undergrad years, when a friend introduced me to the solo records of Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker. I started scooping up any solo records I could and found it to be the most daunting and difficult record to make – not only for the stamina it would take but also for the ideas you’d have to supply. You’ve got these daring Evan records and you’ve got a great Lee Konitz one where he just plays like Lee on “The Song is You” for 40 minutes. Then you’ve got these wonderfully sprawling Rollins ones and you’ve got ones from guys in Europe and Japan and everywhere else. And the commonality is that these people are laying their entire philosophy and direction out. There’s no place to hide.

So, I’ve always known I wanted to do a solo recording but was too intimidated to actually go through with it. But a couple of years after I started messing around with that sopranino, I realized that that was the instrument I was going to use for my own solo record. It fascinated me and just wanted to play differently. So, I literally worked hours every day for a year on it, renting out rehearsal spaces, playing solo gigs, bringing it to jam sessions, anything I could do to get to know it better. The goal was that at the end of that year, right before New Year’s, I’d go somewhere and record, whether I was ready or not (I’d never actually feel ready).

That year was the most musically and directionally productive of my life to date, and it stemmed from this realization that for me, these instruments have their own volition and can bend you to their will and their tendencies if you listen and work with them enough.

From this process, it made me start thinking about the other saxophones ... what directions would they lead? How could I combine these different directions into my own playing, regardless of which horn I was playing? The work I did on the sopranino has definitely affected my alto and tenor playing. So, when I found the mezzo soprano saxophone, I knew there was another direction it could go if I listened to it. Same with the soprillo saxophone and same with the slide saxophone. There will hopefully be solo records of all of those at some point as well, as soon as I can find time to really spend with them. I recently got an alto clarinet and alto flute too - those are bound to lead to different paths as well.

It’s all about keeping my imagination going and being open to new possibilities in the end.

TC: I know it might be difficult to break down, but can you give an example or two of how taking up the sopranino has affected your alto and tenor playing?

JI: I guess it stems mostly from the tiny size of the nino. It seems to want to play faster and without pulse more than the other horns. It seems to find its own direction. Also, the size of it and its fast reaction time allows for more small sounds to happen – I started messing with inhalation noises and reed and mouthpiece manipulation mainly because the nino responded quickly and interestingly to those experimentations. Transferring some of those sounds to the bigger horns has been a challenge because as I said they don’t naturally seem to want to go there. But they do with enough will; I never would have come across some of the techniques if I didn’t start working with the nino.

TC: While we’re on the subject of technique, and digging a little deeper ... although some find “jazz” too limiting a term, are there any new developments to the jazz tradition you find inspiring and/or any established practices you find creatively constraining?

JI: If there are any established practices that I find creatively constraining, I would just leave them out of what I do. I think the only way those types of things become constraining is if a person or group becomes particularly dogmatic about its use. The militant opinion about this being the right way, that being the only way is detrimental to having this music grow, so I try to avoid that as well as musicians who feel that way, whether it’s totally straight-ahead jazz or the most out free improvisation. I love visiting and learning from the extremes, but there’s a place in the middle somewhere that benefits from all the angles.

As for current developments, the Steve Coleman-esque multi/simultaneous meter thing - even though he’s been working on it for decades – still is fascinating and difficult and shows a lot of promise for where that can go. And many musicians are still working with electronics and coming up with new stuff. This music is in a good place right now and the collapse of major labels and gatekeepers really can only help our overall creativity in the long run.

TC: Speaking of the collapse of major labels, as a label proprietor yourself, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry, specifically regarding archival documentation (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

JI: There are always going to be people who want a physical THING when they buy music. They’ll want the touch and feel of it, and to read liner notes and see what kind of art you’ve made to accompany the record. But the current question is, are there enough of those people to justify making your product. Each person’s answer will be and should be different, and there’s room in the marketplace for both. I’m still making physical products for now, but for certain releases I’m going to start trying downloads only to see how that goes and if I’m going to miss the whole process of working with artists for the design, etc. That part has been such an interesting and fun part of the process for me that I have a feeling I’ll miss it a bit.

For my latest record, Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics, we purposefully avoided Spotify and streaming just to see what would happen. People have been buying the physical product from CD Baby and places like that, and people have been downloading from Bandcamp, so there’s still a market for this kind of music. I’m pretty sure more people bought it because it wasn’t available for free to stream somewhere. But some people want the exposure just to get their name out there. I get it! But this was an interesting experiment to see what would happen. It’s still the Wild West as far as the industry goes and it’s up to each artist to figure out their own way.

TC: Since we’re on the subject of recording, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

JI: Both situations have their own specific problems and solutions. I love playing in the studio and the challenge of it. It’s very intimidating. Live performance is more relaxed and where most people feel they can take more chances. Most of the time, the studio is where you have to streamline things to make whatever project you’re recording more presentable and listenable because the live energy just isn’t there in someone’s living room as they listen to a CD. But an album of mine like Foxy from a few years ago - we used the studio and the 78-minute limit of the CD as our guideposts and played with as much energy as a great live performance. However, that album definitely had a different intention than the normal studio date.

TC: Speaking of differences in approach, you’ve been a member of Dave Douglas and Mary Halvorson’s bands for a number of years now. Does your approach towards improvisation in those groups differ at all, or are you free to interpret the written material as you see fit?

JI: Dave and Mary are great bandleaders. They look out for their musicians on the road, are loyal, they write music that they know their musicians can shine on, and they bring both excellence and a high standard of expectation to their groups. I’ve learned from both of them in a ton of ways. One of the main things I’ve noticed is that, once they’ve written the material to an “ideal” place, they are both able to let the music go and grow wherever we take it. They aren’t overly precious about the presentation or if one song veers completely into a different place one night. They are both totally cool with the inclusion of the complete lineage of the music (and Moppa Elliott is great about that as well) and that invitation has definitely influenced where I take my solos night in and night out. Combined with that non-linear thinking from the I Don’t Hear Nothin’ but the Blues approach I mentioned earlier, these open doors lead to so many different possibilities any given night. That’s part of what makes touring so fun – the ability to take familiar material and really approach it from fresh directions each show. I’ve definitely played or sat in with bands where the bandleader is more draconian or the band is living up to some kind of image or framework, and the overall vibe is much less adventurous and fun.

TC: I assume you lead your own groups in much the same way. Using your quintet as an example, how did touring behind the material on Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics affect the eventual outcome of the tunes? Were they different before the tour and after the subsequent studio recording?

JI: The tunes definitely grew and changed throughout the tour. Some wound up drastically different from what I had started with. I had definitely over-written some of the sections, and we could tell while we were performing them that they just didn’t sit right. So, they helped me remove certain parts, or switch them around, or get rid of some complicated chord changes, or simplified some meter shifts, things like that. For some parts I had originally heard quartet things, but I had Tim improvise over some repeating sections and it made so much sense. Now those parts sound empty without his voice in there. The compositional process really doesn’t finish until the members of the band have their say, whether it’s vocally or after a few times on the bandstand.

TC: I assume, based on how busy you are leading your own projects and working as a sideman, that you don’t need to have a non-music related day job? If not, what do you do now to make ends meet, or ... what did you do before becoming a full-time musician?

JI: These days I’m lucky enough that I pursue music full time. I do some teaching, both through schools and privately, and I compose for people and arrange. I play in several bands, many of which tour semi-regularly. I’ve also developed friendships and ensembles with several groups in different parts of Europe that I’m happy to tour with on occasion. So far it’s worked out ok but as a freelancer you never know when the rug can get pulled from under you, so I’m trying to use this time to work on as many aspects of this whole musician thing as possible - transcribing a ton, writing as much as I can for as many different people and organizations as I can, trying to build up the label and of course working on my playing and improvising.

Before I was lucky enough to reach this point though, there were office jobs, wedding bands and tons of teaching. Those were difficult years, but they led to where I am now so I’m thankful for it all.

TC: Looking ahead, what immediate projects do you have scheduled for the future?

JI: In the immediate future, I’ve got the solo mezzo soprano recording I mentioned as well as the piano and sopranino quintet album with Matt Mitchell and the Mivos Quartet. That double album will be coming out in the spring or summer.

Other than that, I’m writing a piece for the Zagreb Saxophone Quartet with me, as well as a clarinet piece for Jennifer Woodrum, an amazing clarinetist in the Midwest.

I’ve got a project with French saxophonist Sylvain Rifflet that we are touring in April; Sylvain and I did a program of Moondog music a few years ago so this time we are composing our own works and will feature Jim Black.

Other shows on the horizon include Maria Schneider, Barry Altschul, Mary Halvorson, Dave Douglas, Ralph Alessi, and Belgian drummer Teun Verbruggen, as well as a bunch of local NYC things. I co-lead a group called Axis with Norwegian guitarist John Hegre and Norwegian drummer Nils Dronen, and we’ve got a record coming out later this year on Irabbagast Records. I also wrote a song cycle for mezzo soprano voice, mezzo soprano saxophone, piano, narrator, clarinet, and oboe, and we’ll be going into the studio later this year to record it as well.

© 2019 Troy Collins

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