That calibration is in the ensemble writing as well as in Small's improvisation, with band and soloist carrying each other through the crescendo. Argue likes layering meters on top of one another. " 'Zeno' [the album's second tune] is about time paradoxes — so there are a lot of time signatures that are implied and superimposed over a big grid." Over the basic "grid" of 3/2, he superimposed 12/8, 5/4, and 7/4. His contention that he isn't reveling in complexity for its own sake is validated by the organic grooves that seem to drive each piece. That 3/2 is based on a flamenco pattern. Maybe you can't count it, but you can feel it, and in most pieces a strong underlying pulse acts as a through-line, guiding your ear (and body) through multiple harmonic and rhythmic variations.
"Rhythmic sleight of hand" is what Argue says he's looking for, something "subtle and non-proggy." He points back to jazz at its proggiest, the fusion of the '70s, when odd time signatures "were the point of the piece and the title of the piece — like, 'Hey, we're playing in 27/16!' On the one hand, I salute the inventiveness and musicianship, but on the other, a lot of that music is not very satisfying to listen to."
And, yes, there's the "steampunk" design of the band's album cover, as well as the title phrase (John Philip Sousa's condemnation of "talking machines"). And there's the title of the noirish "Jacobin Club," an actual historical "secret society." But what most listeners will probably come away with from that tune is an insinuating twist on the tango rhythm, sustaining a sinister, multifarious 11-minute narrative that never flags for a moment.
FORMAL WEAR Jorge Roeder, Bert Seager, and Jorge Pérez-Albela revel in rhythmic sleight-of-hand.
Also engaging in rhythmic sleight of hand these days is long-time Boston pianist and composer Bert Seager, who comes to the Regattabar on Wednesday to celebrate the release of Lima Beans (Invisible Music) with his trio mates from that album, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Jorge "Cocqui" Pérez-Albela. Seager has been a restless lover of and experimenter with form his whole career, and the two Peruvians (they're from Lima, he's from Beantown, get it?) have helped transform his music once again. And, as with Argue, here again is that 12/8 Afro-Peruvian beat the festejo — a variation on that meter that "doesn't happen anywhere else on the planet," Seager tells me on the phone from his Brighton home. That Peruvian 12/8 pulse is the key to the CD's "How High Is the Ocean," Seager's version of the Irving Berlin standard "How Deep Is the Ocean." "Instead of having the upbeat on the third triplet, like in American jazz, the upbeat is on the second triplet — it really fucks you up!"
Sometimes the formal inventions take on a Bach-like cast, as in "Wait Less," with its two lines running in counterpoint. Rather than write a rhythm with four beats per bar, Seager wrote three bars of four beats and a fourth bar of just two beats — "So you 'wait less' at the end of that measure. And you don't notice the missing beats. If you were counting them, you'd notice."