Thursday, November 2, 2017

Sean Imboden Big Band delivers on its promise as it settles in at the Jazz Kitchen

I first heard the Sean Imboden Big Band at the Jazz Kitchen in July. and its performance was most
Sean Imboden (left) leads his big band with somewhat different personnel earlier this year.
as a harbinger of excellence to come. With some of the same material and most of the same top-flight personnel, the 17-piece ensemble returned there Wednesday night.

A generously proportioned first set showed a firmer architectural approach to writing for a large group than I remembered from last summer. There were some thrilling moments, with trumpets summiting at the right places, but not too often. 

I was particularly impressed with the structure of Imboden's "Certified Organic," despite its woolly start. There the leader took one of his rare solos on tenor sax, running a few allusions to "Fascinating Rhythm" before guitarist Joel Tucker picked up a couple of his final phrases to launch his mellifluous solo. When the band returned, the ascent to a majestic ending seemed quite justified by what had gone before. 

Imboden's colleague, Matt Riggen, displayed similar formal integrity in his "Silent Aspect," which had bracing variety in the way Rob Dixon's intense soprano-sax solo yielded to Nick Tucker's low-key statement on the bass. That contrast was mirrored in the nicely balanced full-band diminuendo just before the end.

Some of the arrangements indicated how much rehearsal time for this band is at a premium. Imboden's oblique take on "Stella by Starlight" blossomed a little thickly. By the end, it was difficult to conclude whether the arrangement could use some pruning or a complex but well-integrated chart just needed more thorough preparation. 

Nonetheless, much of the music that posed difficulties as to balance and blending came off well. Imboden's ballad "Someone to Watch Over Us" featured a kind of concertino group, playing at first without the full rhythm section, of two flutes, bass clarinet, soprano sax, and arco bass. They forged a genuine unity — they were clearly listening to one another — and the piece included one of the set's several instances of smart placing of the accompaniment behind the soloist, this time for Amanda Gardier's fervent alto sax. A similar example was the way the band entered and coalesced behind the guitar solo in "Balcony."

There was no sign of uncertainty or wandering in any of the solos, probably because their contexts were always made so clear by the arrangements. The sturdiness of outings by trombonist Ernest Stuart and trumpeter John Raymond during Imboden's "Horizon" were complemented by the independent, mutually supportive writing for the band's sections.

The set ended with an arrangement of Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" that was just as much fun as when I heard it in July.  This time, spirited exchanges between Dixon on tenor sax and LaMont Webb on alto were featured after a pungent Raymond solo.

Besides composer-conductors Imboden and Riggen, here's the complete personnel list as of this appearance by an excellent band that deserves a devoted following:

Reeds: LaMont Webb, Amanda Gardier, Rob Dixon, Matt Pivec, Evan Drybread
Trumpets: Lexie Signor, Jen Siukola, Kent Hickey, John Raymond
Trombones: Freddie Mendoza, Ernest Stuart, Ryan Fraley, Tucker Woerner
Rhythm section: Joel Tucker guitar; Shawn McGowan, piano; Nick Tucker, bass; Sam Bryson, drums

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