By Don Heckman
Remember the name. Jon Irabagon. One of the smallest, most unassuming candidates in the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition ran away with the first place prize Sunday night at Kodak Hall. Although “ran away” doesn’t fully encompass either Irabagon’s accomplishment or the quality of his playing.
Technical skill was a complete given for this competition, with every one of the original twelve semi-finalists displaying virtuostic command of their instrument. The real question facing the stellar line-up of judges — Jane Ira Bloom, Jimmy Heath, Greg Osby, David Sanchez and Wayne Shorter — was what the contestants would do with their fast fingers. And Irabagon, in the semi-finals, as well as the finals, consistently used his skillful dexterity at the service of rich, imaginative improvisational explorations.
His version of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” was stunning, taking the song to the outer limits of re-imagination, valuing the interaction between sounds and silences, while still remaining firmly in touch with the classic melody. Like the other finalists, Irabagon also did a number with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater — “Just Friends,” in their case. And here another, equally intriguing side of Irabagon’s musicality emerged via the spontaneous, often witty, always swinging exchanges with the entertaining Bridgewater.
The other two finalists — Tim Green and Quamon Fowler — won 2nd and 3rd places, respectively. And the margin of difference was slim. Green had appeared to me, at the semi-finals, to be one of the most out-of-the-box inventive of all the players. But he seemed more subdued, less adventurous, at the finals, which may have impacted his final standing. He nonetheless has all the making of a significant new arrival. Fowler’s tall, imposing presence, combined with an eclectic style that reaches easily across genres and generations, virtually guarantees that he will join the many Monk finalists who have moved on to successful careers, despite their 2nd or 3rd place finishes.
While the Competition, itself, was the most appealing part of the evening — as it always is — for jazz fans, the program was a fund-raiser, as well. As such, it included special awards to B.B. King and businessman Paul D. Allen, as well as a gala performance reaching from sets by young Monk Institute-supported high school jazzers to a stellar line up of jazz, blues and pop artists.
Appropriately, the long, highlight-filled program was titled “The Blues and Jazz: Two American Classics.” And with King, Keb’ Mo,’ Joe Louis Walker and Robert Cray on stage, the blues was well covered in all its fundamental manifestations. Add to that the sterling jazz vocals of Bridgewater and the inimitable Cassandra Wilson, and the instrumental contributions of Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy Heath, Terence Blanchard, George Duke, Terri Lyne Carrington, John Patitucci, Poncho Sanchez and Lee Ritenour, and the jazz perspectives were fully filled in, as well.
Bono and the Edge, busily dashing around the stage, added some pop blues — as well, no doubt, as a boost in the ticket sales. And the whole shebang wound up with a cluttered, but enthusiastic all-join-in romp through ‘Let the Good Times Roll.”
Ultimately, however, the evening was less about all-stars, of every stripe, and more about the valuable, continuing work of the Monk Institute in supporting and sustaining the music that is America’s most significant cultural achievement. That, and the arrival of Jon Irabagon.