Jon Irabagon cleans up good. That is to say, after hearing and seeing him exploit all the sonic potentials of his saxophone with Mostly Other People Do the Killing earlier this year, these ears were impressed that he's equally adept at toning down the wails and the irony (no covers of Billy Joel here) and leading a more traditional quartet with veterans Rufus Reid (bass), Victor Lewis (drums) and Kenny Barron (piano), with another traditionalist (trumpeter Nicholas Payton) dropping in on a couple of songs. Makes the cynic in me wonder if the MOPDTK guys are snickering.
Of course, you don't win the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Saxophone Competition by sticking with Roscoe Mitchell shrieks. Or Cannonball Adderley imitations. But knowing his other side, it took me a couple listens to get past the free bias and get into what he does on The Observer. (Note to aspiring critics, don't make your final judgment on the first listen.) It became clear at that point that his writing and soloing skills are pretty mature.
There comes a section in the steady swinger "Joy's Secret" where the rhythm section locks into a descending progression, with Reid doing a pedal point groove, thumping the low strings (sounding at times like he's bowing) and answering on the high end. It ends a level of tension that is felt in Irabagon's solo, continues through Barron's and finally releases at the start of Payton's solo. Even in the streamlined, straight ahead setting, the saxophonist proves himself by throwing some rough little licks into his solo. His double timed, tongued phrases pass quickly in "January's Dream" but they grab your ear and wish that he had taken two choruses instead of one. At the end of the chorus, though, he turns up the heat by playing through the intro instead of using it to pull back. On "Makai and Tacoma" and the title track, Irabagon switches to tenor and he sounds just as mature on that horn.
His choices of covers are also off the beaten track and indicate a wide scope of influence. Gigi Gryce's ballad "The Infant's Song" goes for nearly two engaging minutes with just alto and bass digging into the melody before Lewis and Barron drop in. "Cup Bearers" by Tom McIntosh follows immediately, taking the tempo back up and gives Irabagon a chance to show off his speed and melodic skills. Elmo Hope's "Barfly" is not only a remarkable choice, it presents an impressive duet partner - Hope's widow Bertha on piano.
The final track is titled "Closing Arguments" an ironic name on a couple levels, because it doesn't contain any arguments as such, just a pensive minor melody where the piano answers the alto's lines.
True, Irabagon can play it straight, and he does it very well. But The Observer also seems like it's just the beginning of an adventurous career as a leader.