|No cabin fever: Sean Imboden got good results from his big-band outing.|
However long it stays together with a stable personnel list, the Sean Imboden Big Band made an exciting indoor debut — and gave cause for celebration — Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen.
The leader, an Indianapolis native schooled in his specialties at Indiana University and Queens College in New York, guided the 17-piece band (counting the leader's occasional turns on saxophones) in compositions and arrangements he's written over the past several years — plus those of a trumpet-playing friend, Matt Riggen, who also conducted. The band had its first public appearance earlier this summer under damp conditions in Broad Ripple Park.
The first Jazz Kitchen set was loaded with promise. The blend took a while to jell, in part because realizing the sound embedded in the charts is a mixing challenge. Imboden's writing features a lot of independence among the horn sections — reeds, trumpets, trombones — and sudden rhythm-section episodes and dips in intensity. In musical terms, the result seemed somewhere in between a Rubik's cube and an M.C. Escher print. By the second set, just about everything snapped into place, and the musicians were surefooted climbing Escher-like stairways.
Such intricacy may sound difficult for the average listener to "solve," but usually that was not the case. If it was hard sometimes for a solo to stand out against a busy background, at least the intended effect was transparent. That was true particularly when the soloist's individuality asserted itself in the texture. It's sufficient to bring forward the example of "Horizon," the second piece played, with distinctive statements by trombonist Freddie Mendoza and tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught (welcome back, Sophie!). In a few other places, saxophonist Rob Dixon rode the tide handily. His two-bar exchanges with alto saxophonist Rich Cohen during Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" gave the nimble arrangement particular verve.
Section work acquired more and more polish in the second set. Pinpoint sax coordination was displayed in Imboden's "Around the Corner," with which the band opened after the break. Riggen's lush, thoughtful "Silent Aspect" followed in such a way as to emphasize how well the members listen to each other in close-order drill. The translucent textures were an improvement on Riggen's oddly cluttered borrowing from the Sacred Harp tradition, "Idumea," with Imboden soloing on soprano sax, warming up as he went along. Kudos, however, for Riggen's sprightly take on Charlie Parker's "Anthropology."
Each set ended with an untitled Imboden blues, giving the opportunity for the band's less frequent soloists to state cases for themselves. The rhythm section (Evan Main, piano; Nick Tucker, bass; Ben Lumsdaine, drums) was stellar interacting with such a variety of players in both pieces. Tucker's comping had so much zing, tonal focus, and variety that even I might sound OK in a blues chorus or two with him behind me. (No, I won't accept the challenge.)
Few obvious shortcomings in the band popped up over the three hours. The reeds need to be careful about intonation when they are called upon to pick up clarinets. And the mellow trumpet section, which sounded particularly at home when flugelhorns were employed, could now and then benefit from a lead player on the order of the Buselli-Wallarab orchestra's Joey Tartell — not a screamer like Ellington's Cat Anderson, but someone who can ride those strutting or majestic crests with authority. There were signs of such a player in the final blues, with a rare solo by Lexie Signor.
Imboden (and Riggen) deserve gratitude for exploring subtler colors, for moving rhythms and tone colors around, and for offering sufficient hints that this band has reserves of power it doesn't need to overexploit. But, first and foremost, that such an ensemble even exists on the scene with lots of good new material and capable people to deliver it merits praise.