Post-millennial swing

Darcy James Argue's genre-stretching Secret Society
By JIM MACNIE  |  August 4, 2010

Darcy-James-Argue_main
CONTEXT “There’s no such thing as people appreciating music in a vacuum.”

It's not the solos, though they're usually as inviting as they are bracing. And it's not the charts, though they're often as persuasive as they are unpredictable. It's a blend of the two, a deep integration that lets individual voices have their say while still participating in a larger conversation. That's the chemistry that gives Darcy James Argue's music its provocative punch. That's what provides its cinematic clout.

Secret Society, Argue's 18-piece jazz ensemble, recently took "Rising Star" honors in the Big Band category of DownBeat's Critics' Poll (and DJA won in the Arranger and Composer fields); comprised of breakthrough instrumentalists from New York, the group has turned lots of heads in the last two years. Their well-attended gigs have a different vibe than other big band shows. The audience is a little younger, the venues aren't the typical jazz clubs, the music is a lot more progressive. That's not code for blaring or out-of-control. Argue's enticing arrangements are refined and detailed, and their focus helps power the bandstand action. It is code for novel, however. Like a few of his contemporaries, including the mighty John Hollenbeck, the 35-year-old composer designs his music to employ an array of rhythms, instrumentation, and attitudes that haven't previously been put to use in the large ensemble arena.

It's what makes Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam), Secret Society's debut, so engrossing. One section of "Red Eye" feels like Bernard Herrmann guiding Pere Ubu through a funeral march. Argue wrote it about the psychic haze that develops from overwork and the resultant "cotton wool fuzziness that feels delicious and calming," as he says in his notes. Then there's the addictive counterpoint that drives "Zeno," piano figures creating friction against bass patterns while a wash of dreamy horns drifts above. You almost expect Thom Yorke's robot whisper to bubble up in the foreground. In the spring, Argue told the Village Voice that when they were building the critically acclaimed debut, the band was "just really trying to fuck with people's ideas of, 'Hey, I thought this was going to be a big band record!' "

It's a bit more thoughtful than that, however. Argue may be an unusual composer, but his work isn't iconoclastic in the typical sense. There's old school beauty at the center of several pieces; he has plenty of trad skills. The Canadian-born leader told one magazine he enjoyed a "reasonable local career" as a small group boss in Montreal before he began his schooling at Boston's New England Conservatory a decade or so ago. He has since dedicated his time to his vision of the contemporary big band, Tortoise allusions and all.

When Secret Society gets to the CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival on Saturday morning (they're on at 11:20 am!), they'll have Bob Brookmeyer with them. Argue studied under him at NEC, and has recently finalized a new piece specifically as a feature for the famed trombonist-arranger. I chatted with Argue in a café near his Brooklyn apartment.

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