Plenty of Revelations from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society
It wasn’t any surprise that Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society‘s first set at the Jazz Gallery Thursday night quickly sold out, and the second looked it would also. Brooklyn’s best-known big band jazz act rewarded the crowd with a performance that was as volatile, both musically and thematically, as it was intricately orchestrated, the composer out in front of the ensemble, a close and warm cameraderie becoming immediately apparent. They opened with one of their older numbers inspired by Alan Turing, the legendary WWII British codebreaker and computer visionary who was essentially murdered by the same government he’d saved. In a way, this set the stage for much of the rest of the night. Argue self-deprecatingly called it “math-jazz,” even though it was a whole lot more than that. One of the defining characteristics of Argue’s music is long pedaled passages – lots of bands like to vamp, but Argue does it with surprising subtlety, an insistent, often constantly shifting meter underpinning all kinds of exchanges from the rest of the band. Watching the band, the inventiveness of Argue’s voicings was busting out everywhere: on this one, how the entire brass section evoked the roar of an electric guitar since there wasn’t one in this arrangement.
Most of this set consisted of the first part of Argue’s latest, explosively evocative album Brooklyn Babylon. As you might expect from a live performance of this extremely tightly orchestrated suite, it was a little looser, more raw, rougher around the edges and more dangerous: more oldschool New York. It’s a narrative told from the perspective of a fictional Eastern European immigrant hired to build the carousel atop the tallest tower in the world (symbolism, anybody?), a job the artisan first embraces and then comes to view with increased horror as the Bloomberg gentrification blitzkrieg gets turned loose on the borough’s remaining working-class neighborhoods. And Argue’s orchestration turned out to be as fascinating to watch as his plot line hit a bullseye, again and again. The rat-a-tat Balkan dance that kicked it off made inventive use of trombones in place of the trubas that a group of, say, Serbians would have used. Dancing flutes juxtaposed with brooding washes of low midrange brass; simmeringly passionate solos from Sharel Cassity on alto sax, Erica Von Kleist on tenor sax and Ryan Keberle on trombone contrasted with anxious, moody atmospherics and coldly mechanical rhythms, drummer Eric Doob often locking into a basic four-on-the-floor rock beat.
Amid the hammering metrics and increasingly anxious, bustling sweep of the band, a mournful Satie-esque quality drifted from a duet between acoustic guitar and piano. A blithe, dancing albeit brief interlude for flutes, and several variations on a haunting, memorable piano-and-guitar riff added unexpected colors and contrast. The group wound up the set with a work commissioned by the Jazz Gallery, blending a Steve Reichian circularity with a cinematic sweep and intensity, Von Kleist’s lyrical tenor solo over Doob’s altered clave punctuated by hypnotically lopsided syncopation from the brass and eventually the rest of the band. They took it up from a brooding, cumulo-nimbus atmosphere to a blazing pulse underpinned by resolute, minimalist piano riffage, Von Kleist dancing her way through the mechanistic maze that kept closing in on her.
After the set, the venue cleared the house, at which point the question arose as to whether to pull rank and take a seat for the second set as well – monkey on back, biting hard – or to give that seat to someone who’d been waiting patiently on the stairs for probably a half-hour or more. Fatigue, more than any genuine altruism, won out over the monkey: the second half, with its harrowing conclusion of Brooklyn Babylon, promised to be even better than the first.
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