Standing Out From Their Crowds

Ensemble work highlights the burgeoning skills of saxophonist Jon Irabagon and guitarist Mary Halvorson.


By MARTIN JOHNSON
Dec. 29, 2014

Saxophonist Jon Irabagon and guitarist Mary Halvorson spent 2014 solidifying their stature as two of jazz’s rising stars. Each musician spent time in ensembles that showcased the increasing diversity of their sound and approaches. As the year wore on, Mr. Irabagon put his influences further in the distance as his own distinctive style emerged; Ms. Halvorson seemed to arrive fully formed seven years ago, but in the past 12 months she has demonstrated surprising new range in her composing and playing.

The winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, Mr. Irabagon, who is 36, worked as a sideman on stellar recordings by trumpeter Dave Douglas and drummer Rudy Royston, and he played both the alto and tenor sax on Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s controversial recording “Blue” (Hot Cup), a note-for-note re-creation of the cornerstone Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue.” Ms. Halvorson performed with saxophone great Anthony Braxton, guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Matt Wilson, as well participated in the collective band Thumbscrew.

Mr. Irabagon plays in two bands, a quintet and a septet, led by Ms. Halvorson, and the guitarist plays in a trio led by the saxophonist. That group will perform on Saturday during a three-night residency of bands led by Mr. Irabagon at New York’s Cornelia Street Café. That engagement will begin on Friday with performances by a trio that includes virtuoso elders—drummer Barry Altschul and bassist Mark Helias—and will conclude on Sunday with a quartet that features Mr. Royston. Ms. Halvorson will lead her quartet, Reverse Blue, at Cornelia St. Café on Jan. 9 and then play two sidewoman gigs during Winter Jazzfest, the annual downtown New York jazz club crawl, in bands led by Mr. Ribot and by the drummer Tomas Fujiwara.

The saxophone-bass-drums trio is one of the most rewarding settings for Mr. Irabagon’s wide-ranging approach, and his 2014 release, “It Takes All Kinds” (Jazzwerkstatt), deservedly made many top-10 lists. It is his band with Messrs. Altschul and Helias, and the music builds on his 2010 trio release “Foxy” (Hot Cup), an energetic recording that made deliberate references to Sonny Rollins’s 1957 classic “Way Out West” (Contemporary). The only obvious precedent to the new recording is the group Air, a trio from the late ’70s and early ’80s whose work was characterized by the same wily use of space and democratic sharing of the lead role found on “It Takes All Kinds.” Mr. Irabagon has often played as forcefully as possible, but here he balances the aggressive moments with more nuanced ones. The strategy elevates a catchy track like “Vestiges” to an anthem. His intense, tightly coiled solo on “Quintessential Kitten” is exhilarating.

Mr. Irabagon grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and took to the saxophone after being taught the piano by his aunt. He was an avid fan of popular music but fell in love with jazz upon hearing the alto-saxophone great Cannonball Adderley. That interest led him to the music of other pivotal saxophonists like John Coltrane, Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman, Roscoe Mitchell and Wayne Shorter. He studied at DePaul University before moving to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music and join the jazz scene.

Ms. Halvorson, who is 34, grew up in Brookline, Mass., and studied violin before a fascination with the music of Jimi Hendrix led her to take up the guitar. As a high-school student she enrolled in summer programs at Berklee College and the New England Conservatory of Music, but to her dismay she was often stereotyped as a folk singer.

During this time, Ms. Halvorson took to the music of Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and she attended Wesleyan University to study with Mr. Braxton, a longtime professor of music there. She emerged on the New York jazz scene with a style that owed little to the classic jazz-guitar tradition. She had a heavy touch and augmented her notes and power chords with effects and delays. She showcased this sound on the 2008 recording “Dragon’s Head” (Firehouse 12), which featured her in a trio setting. She formed larger groups that offered complex pieces that balanced her guitar with an array of horns.

The first track on her new recording, “Reverse Blue” (Cunieform), follows from the previous recordings, with furious guitar work meshing with fervent playing by her bandmates: Mr. Fujiwara, saxophonist Chris Speed and bassist Eivind Opsvik. But much of the rest of the recording offers some of Ms. Halvorson’s most elegant writing and fluid work to date. The lean sound and high-pitched harmonies of tracks like “Hako” and “Rebel’s Revue” recall the early piano-free bands led by guitarist Jim Hall and reedman Jimmy Giuffre in the late ’50s. Like Mr. Irabagon, Ms. Halvorson has found a way to reflect her instrument’s past while driving it confidently into the future.