The hook for Darcy James Argue's Secret Society — who come to the Regattabar Thursday the 25th — is that they're a "steampunk big band." If you're a jazz fan, you don't need to know what that means. And if you're not a jazz fan but have steampunk inclinations, maybe it will pique your interest. To oversimplify: for those of us who have just been waving "Oh, right" at it, "steampunk" is a movement that values certain styles and attitudes pertaining to 19th-century Victoriana as a way of humanizing the age of digital sleekness. Think: Jules Verne, The Wild Wild West (with its retro-futurism), Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, and dressing up your Mac as an old Royal typewriter. (For more, check out Sharon Steel's "Steam Dream" essay in the Phoenix of May 23, 2008.)
For the New York–based, 34-year-old Argue, steampunk means confronting the 21st century with an anachronistic ensemble that was "designed to fill ballrooms in the pre-amplification era." In a sense, he's "imagining an alternate reality where big bands were still widely popular and jazz was still on speaking terms with other musical genres." Sure, fine. As Sinatra said, "Whatever gets you through the night." For the rest of us, this means some really cool big-band music.
After all, plenty of younger musicians — from Brian Blade and Aaron Parks to Jim Black and Jeremy Udden — are working to incorporate contemporary pop into their own writing. And when you come right down to it, there's nothing more steampunk than a tenor saxophone. When I get Argue on the phone, he can point to any number of details from the Secret Society's Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam) mash-up of old and new: acoustic instruments impersonating electronic studio effects like digital delay, filter sweeps, phase shifting.
The album in fact begins with what could be a signature steampunk moment: the Peruvian cajón — the most "technologically primitive" of percussion instruments, "just a box with a snare in it" — beating out an Afro-Peruvian rhythm, but processed with heavy echo, so that the sound itself becomes like a memory. That tune, "Phobos," continues with Matt Clohesy's electric bass and an effects-laden electric guitar that could have been lifted out of Nirvana's "Come As You Are."
And yet, many of these effects are couched in sunburst chords of brass and reeds and flutes and rich, slow-moving harmonies — the kind of orchestral jazz writing that began with Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer and continues with Brookmeyer students like Argue, John Hollenbeck, and Maria Schneider. (Via e-mail, Brookmeyer recalls that Argue's first piece as a New England Conservatory student was "a hair curler" and adds, "I'm pleased to find him turning into a very good promotion office, in addition to writing some fine music.") So "Phobos" alternates passages of Sebastian Noelle's blasting electric guitar with a carefully calibrated tenor-sax solo by Mark Small.