The New Album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Explores the Menace and Monkeyshines of Conspiracy Theories
The term “conspiracy theory” was invented by the right wing as a facile way to dismiss investigative reporting, lumping it in with farcical myths about aliens and Zionists. As actor James Urbaniak narrates at the end of Real Enemies – the groundbreaking new album by innovative large jazz ensemble Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, streaming at Bandcamp – the right wing has actually been responsible for spreading many of those theories as disinformation in order to hide their own misdeeds. Argue and his eighteen-piece big band explore both the surreal and the sinister side of these theories – “You have to choose which ones to believe,” the Brooklyn composer/conductor told the audience at a Bell House concert last year. This album is a long-awaited follow-up to Argue’s shattering 2013 release Brooklyn Babylon, a chronicle of the perils of gentrification. The group are playing the release show on Oct 2 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $30 and are going fast. From there the band travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they’ll be playing on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.
Although Brooklyn Babylon has the occasional moment of grim humor on its way to a despairing oceanside coda, this album is more overtly dark, but also funnier. Conversations between various groups of instruments abound. Most are crushingly cynical, bordering on ridiculous, in a Shostakovian vein. And once in awhile, Argue lifts the curtain on a murderously conspiratorial moment. A prime example is Dark Alliance, an expansively brassy mashup of early 80s P-Funk, salsa romantica and late-period Sun Ra. And the droll/menacing dichotomy that builds throughout Silent Weapon for Quiet Wars is just plain hilarious.
The album opens on a considerably more serious note with You Are Here, a flittingly apt Roger Waters-style scan of tv headline news followed by tongue-in-cheek, chattering muted trumpet. A single low, menacing piano note anchors a silly conversation as it builds momentum, then the music shifts toward tensely stalking atmospherics and back. The second track, The Enemy Within opens with a wry Taxi Driver theme quote, then slinks along with a Mulholland Drive noir pulse, through an uneasy alto sax solo and then a trick ending straight out of Bernard Herrmann.
With Sebastian Noelle’s lingering, desolately atonal guitar and Argue’s mighty, stormy chart, Trust No One brings to mind the aggressively shadowy post-9/11 tableaux of the late, great Bob Belden’s Animation. Best Friends Forever follows a deliciously shapeshifting trail, from balmy and lyrical over maddeningly syncopated broken chords that recall Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to an explosively altered gallop with the orchestra going full tilt. Likewise, The Hidden Hand builds out of a blithe piano interlude to cumulo-nimbus bluster.
The Munsters do the macarena in Casus Belli, a scathing sendup of the Bush/Cheney regime’s warmongering in the days following 9/11. Crisis Control opens with a mealy-mouthed George W. Bush explaining away the decision to attack Afghanistan, and contains a very subtle, ominous guitar figure that looks back to Brooklyn Babylon: clearly, the forces behind the devastation of great cities operate in spheres beyond merely razing old working-class neighborhoods.
Caustically cynical instrumental chatter returns over a brooding canon for high woodwinds in Apocalypse Is a Process, seemingly another withering portrait of the disingenuous Bush cabinet. Never a Straight Answer segues from there with burbling, ominously echoing electric piano and Matt Clohesy’s wah bass, talking heads in outer space. The apocalyptic cacaphony of individual instruments at the end fades down into Who Do You Trust, a slow, enigmatically shifting reprise of the opening theme.
Throughout the album, there are spoken-word samples running the gamut from JFK – describing Soviet Communism, although he could just as easily be talking about the Silicon Valley surveillance-industrial complex – to Dick Cheney. As Urbaniak explains at the album’s end, the abundance of kooky speculation makes the job of figuring out who the real enemies are all the more arduous. As a soundtrack to the dystopic film that we’re all starring in, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to imagine anything more appropriate than this. And it’s a contender for best album of 2016.
One of the year’s funnest concerts was back at the end of July at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, where three of New York’s most distinctive jazz vocalists – Catherine Russell, Brianna Thomas and Charenee Wade – sang a lascivious and occasionally heartwrenching mix of blues and early swing tunes. Daycamp kids, retirees, office workers on their lunchbreaks and others playing hooky from work (guess who) hung around and grinned in unison when Russell sang the story of what happened when Miss Liza Johnson’s ex finds out that she’s changed the lock on her front door. “He pushed it in and turned it round,” she paused, “And took it out,” she explained. “They just don’t write ’em like that anymore,” she grinned afterward.
Wade made her entrance with a pulsing take of Lil Johnson’s My Stove’s in Good Condition and its litany of Freudian metaphors, which got the crowd going just like it was 1929. Matt Munisteri, playing banjo, took a rustic, coyly otherworldly solo, dancing and then frenetically buzzing, pinning the needle in the red as he would do often despite the day’s early hour. Thomas did a similar tune, working its innuendos for all they were worth. And the split second Wade launched into “I hate to see that evening sun go down,”a siren echoed down Jay Street. Not much has changed in that way since 1929 either. That was the point of the show, that the blues is no less relevant or amusing now than it was almost a hundred years ago when most of the songs in the setwere written.
The band – Munisteri, Mark Shane on piano, Tal Ronen on bass, Mark McLean drums, Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, John Allred on trombone and Mark Lopeman on tenor and soprano sax – opened counterintuitively with a slow, moody blues number that sounded like the prototype for Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy, Munisteri’s beehive of a tremolo-picked banjo solo at the center. They went to the repertoire of Russell’s pianist dad Luis for an ebullient take of Going to Town, a jaunty early swing tune from 1930 with brief dixieland-flavored solos all around. The rest of the set mined the catalog of perennial favorites like Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith, with a bouncy take of bouncy take of Fats Waller’s Crazy ‘Bout My Baby to shake things up.
The show’s most riveting number was a hushed piano-and-vocal duo take of Ethel Waters’ Supper Time. Thomas took care to emphasize that it was the grim account of a woman explaining to her kids that their dad wasn’t coming home anymore since he’d been lynched. Shane’s piano matched Thomas’ understated anguish through austere gospel-flavored passages, occasionally reaching into the macabre. Then she picked up the pace just a little with a pensive take of the Bessie Smith classic I Ain’t Got Nobody, fueled by Shane’s striding lefthand and Kellso’s energetically shivery, melismatic lines.
Russell let her vibrato linger throughout maybe the night’s most innuendo-fueled number, Margaret Johnson’s Who’ll Chop Your Suey When I’m Gone (sample lyric: “Who’ll clam your chowder?”), the horns as exuberantly droll as the vocals. The three women didn’t do much in the way of harmonies until the end of the set, which would have been fun to see: Wade with her no-nonsense alto, Russell with her purist mezzo-soprano and Thomas’s alternately airy and fiery higher register. How does all this relate to what’s happening in New York right now, a couple of months after this apparently one-off collaboration was over? Russell has a new album out – which hasn’t made it over the transom here yet. Stay tuned!
No less august a figure than ELO’s Jeff Lynne had asked the Attacca Quartet to open his sold-out stand at Radio City this past weekend. The string quartet responded with an ecstatic, robust performance that, while tantalizingly brief, threatened to upstage the headliners. It was as much a testament to the group’s ability to connect with an audience most likely unfamiliar with their repertoire as it was Lynne’s confidence in his thirteen-piece band’s ability to pull off a similarly electric set of ambitious, iconic chamber pop and art-rock hits.
The foursome – violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nathan Schram and cellist Andrew Yee – spiced their set with codas by Haydn and Beethoven, practically jumping out of their shoes to be playing to such a vast audience. Beyond that, they impressed with their choice of material, opening with John Adams’ acerbically percussive miniature Toot Nipple, then a bit later slinking up his Alligator Escalator with its steady, apprehensive drive out of a rondo of sepulchral high harmonics. It was arguably the high point of the night. While the group could have taken the easy route with standard Romantic repertoire, or the ostentatious one with, say, Bartok, they cemented their cred by showcasing material from their pals, emerging composers Paul Wiancko and Michael Ippolito. Stark low-midrange washes and enigmatically lively exchanges held the crowd’s focus before the headliners hit the stage.
Opening with a low, ominously swirling vortex of sound – one of several recurrent tropes this evening – Lynne and company launched into the stark, misterioso intro to Tightrope, the uneasily dynamic, Dvorak-influenced first cut on the group’s platinum-selling 1976 New World Record. The only remaining member from the band’s several chart-topping 70s lineups is keyboardist Richard Tandy; the rest of Lynne’s merry band is on the young side, and they were stoked to the nines to be able to share the stage with one of the greatest rock tunesmiths of alltime.
They didn’t play Do Ya – the cult favorite by Lynne’s previous band the Move that ELO reprised much more ornately for an American audience – but they also didn’t segue into it like they used to do back in the day, when they’d cut off the galumphing, phantasmagorical outro to 10538 Overture, the alienation anthem that opens the band’s 1972 debut album. This time out they played that all the way through. Other than that and Tightrope, the night’s only other deep cut – an epically pulsing take of Secret Messages, title track to the band’s 1983 album – also rose out of a stygian reflecting pool.
The crowd saved their most heartfelt ovation for a particularly gorgeous, majestic take of the 1974 ballad Can’t Get It Out of My Head, lit up with terse Tandy keyboard flourishes that held very closely to the kind of fun the band would have with it onstage forty years ago. Otherwise, the band’s two additional keyboardists, as many as four guitarists at once and a couple of backup singers over a hard-hitting but swinging rock rhythm section brought new energy to Lynne’s already hefty studio arrangements.
The one new song in the set, from the late 2015 release Alone in the Universe, was the Lennonesque, autobiographical piano ballad When I Was a Boy. Otherwise, this was a clapalong show. The band followed an inspired version of the bluesy, minor-key 1976 kiss-off hit Evil Woman with a similarly terse performance of their 1973 British hit, Showdown. Their late-70s disco era was represented by the bouncy Shine a Little Love and All Over the World as well as a hypnotically spiraling run through Turn to Stone, from the 1977 double album Out of the Blue.
The rest of the set drew on fun, imaginatively orchestrated arrangements of radio hits including Livin’ Thing, with its spiraling violin solo; a boisterously strummed Sweet Talking Woman; and the stately, angst-drenched ballad Telephone Line, shimmering with surreallistic, melancholy keyboard textures. They closed with the crescendoing pastorale Wild West Hero and then a full-length version of Mr. Blue Sky – a nod to a well-known jazz standard – and encored with an expansive cover of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, a popular FM radio staple from 1972. Throughout the set, Lynne sang strongly, from the bottom of his formidable baritone, to the falsetto he used with such frequency in the late 70s. It would have been a treat to hear Eldorado, or Kuiama, or similar early material voicing his visionary; dystopic worldview. Guess we’ll have to wait til next tour for that.
The Attacca Quartet’s’ next New York performance is on October 21 at 8 PM at Holy Trinity Church, 3 W 65th St. where they’ll be performing works by Beethoven and Caroline Shaw. General admission is $20.
Roger Nierenberg’s InSight Concert Provides a Rapturous, Under-the-Hood Look at a Symphony Orchestra
What was it like to be seated between the basses and the kettledrums at conductor Roger Nierenberg‘s InSight Concert at the DiMenna Center Saturday night? For those who gravitate toward the low registers, pretty close to heaven, when those instruments were part of the sonic picture. The rest of the audience was interspersed between various other orchestral sections…and then were encouraged to move to a new spot for the second half of the evening’s program. Not a brand-new idea – the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony played a revelatory version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in this same configuration last winter – but in any event, a memorable one.
Nierenberg has carved a niche for himself helping corporate clients employ orchestral-style teamwork, and the orchestra’s performance of a very smartly chosen program made a striking reminder just what a monumental feat it is to pull off a successful symphonic performance – the primary difference between a musical ensemble and a corporate environment being that backstabbing musicians have very short careers. To get a piece of music to work, everyone playing it has to trust each other.
On the podium, Nierenberg personified purpose and clarity, and a sense of call-and-response, delivering an agenda that the ensemble made good on. As a bonus for concertgoers, he invited them onto a big platform behind him, to watch over his shoulder for a conductors-eye view of the concert throughout a dynamic reading of Kodaly’s Galantai Tancok. It was the third and most vivid of a trio of folk-themed suites on the program, alternating between upbeat airs and more brooding Balkan themes, oboe and clarinet delivered crystalline, minutely nuanced solos front and center.
Britten’s Suite of English Folk Dances came across as sort of an etude for orchestra, packed with all sorts of high/low dichotomies that kept audience heads turning as the focus shifted in a split-second from the flutes, to the low strings, to percussion and then brass. Nierenberg’s own Playford Dance Suite, drawing on the very same folk melodies that Britten appropriated for his, packed considerably more emotional impact, and was much more clearly focused as well.
As many conductors do, Nierenberg also had the orchestra pull illustrative quotes from the program’s concluding numbers, Wagner’s Siegried Idyll – a birthday wake-up present from the composer to his wife, the conductor explained – and Ravel’s Mother Goose Ballet. Again, the contrasts – balmy atmospherics versus kinetic phantasmagoria – were striking to the point where the crowd was left with a takeaway that most likely lingered long after the concert. If Nierenberg gets his way, it’ll leave a much more lasting impact: mission
“There are more piano competitions than there are pianists,” a snarky singer in the crowd observed at last night’s performance at Steinway Hall by five finalists in this year’s American Pianists Awards. But this contest champions artists worth following: Aaron Diehl is probably the most prominent of recent winners. Was there a champion among Steven Lin, Sam Hong, Drew Petersen, Henry Kramer and Alex Beyer?
Considering how vastly different each’s choice of repertoire was, any kind of verdict would be subjective to the extreme. In terms of fluid, nuanced and often strenuous command of the kind of keyboard acrobatics required for the showstopping dramatics of La Legierezza from Liszt’s Three Concert Etudes, Petersen was flawless. For that matter, so was Kramer, whose bravely quirky choice of a relatively less demanding trio of Ligeti miniatures from the Musica Ricercara was a platform for a triumph over cruelly brain-warping lefthand-versus-righthand polyrhythms and cramp-inducing circular motives.
The way Lin artfully let the few lingering phrases of Bach’s Echo from the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831 – a harpsichord piece – resonate to a minute but vivid degree was particularly striking, and intuitive. Hong’s confident, vigorous virtuosity shone through two Schumann Fantasiestucke selections. And perhaps partly because of his choice of his material – here is where things get very subjective – Beyer channeled soul, and gravitas, and historically-informed programmatic savvy in addition to formidable technique through Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The pianist made it easy for a listener to take it in with eyes closed, to imagine a young Rachmaninoff having every bit as much fun as he was, finding counterpoint and fugal roots in a piece that drew both a straight line back to Bach as well as the ironic dichotomies that would take root in the Russian composer’s own music.
May the best man win when, after a rigorous program of solo, chamber and symphonic performances, a new champion is chosen in the spring of 2017 in Indianapolis.
One of the most richly fascinating and historically important releases of recent months is the Gowanus Arts Ensemble‘s new album American Romantics: Premiere Recordings of Turn of the Century Works for String Orchestra. Reuben Blundell, who has enjoyed a productive association with the Chelsea Symphony, one of New York’s most enterprising, consistently entertaining orchestras, conducts this similarly enterprising group of Brooklyn string players, with meticulous attention to detail. On one hand, this album – streaming at Spotify – has immense value for rescuing these works, all by American composers, from obscurity. It’s every bit as enjoyable as a collection of lush, low-key, often moody Romantic nocturnes.
Eighteenth century Danish immigrant Karl Busch’s Omaha Indian Love Song, from his Four North American Legends suite, opens the album on a soberly waltzing, rather plaintive note. As stark as the music is, its colors are especially vivid, the low strings evoking a horn section. Later on, the ensemble makes precise work of his fascinatingly Asian-tinged Chippewa Lullaby, and finally his achingly understated Elegie. Fans of the Barber Adagio will especially enjoy discovering that one.
Julian Schwarz’ elegant cello takes centerstage along with some playful pizzicato high strings in German-born Paul Friedrich Theodor Miersch’s Pleasant Memories, which is far more dynamic than its blithe title would suggest. Best remembered in the organ demimonde, early 20th century composer Ludwig Bonvin is represented by his gently balmy Christmas Night’s Dream. A lullaby by German-born Karl Hillman, who enjoyed an unusually versatile career as a Chicago Symphony Orchestra multi-string player, takes a striking detour toward the somber before returning with a delicate triumph. Horatio Parker, another composer best known for his works for organ, is remembered with a lively rendition of his uneasily waltzing, Italian baroque-tinged Scherzo for Strings.
The ensemble takes graceful flight on the wings of prolific New Orleans creole composer Eugène Dédé’s picturesque waltz Abeilles et Bourdons (Bees and Bumblebees). Yet another esteemed American organist and composer, Arthur Foote, is immortalized here with his lush, enigmatic, canonic Air & Gavotte for Strings
Boston composer Frederick Shepherd Converse’s Serenade, yet another waltz, contrasts poignancy alongside the most lighthearted piece here, a scherzo by Milwaukee-born Henry Schoenefeld. What a fantastic album, with seamless and lustrous playing from violinists Hiroko Taguchi, Orlando Wells,Yuiko Kamakari, Elizabeth Nielsen and Sarah Zun; violists Entela Barci and Carla Fabiani; cellists Julian Schwarz and Alisa Horn; and bassist Rick Ostrovsky. It makes a valuable companion piece to organist Gail Archer‘s An American Idyll, a similarly historic collection of works by American composers working the “organ highway” from New York to Washington in the past century.
And the Chelsea Symphony – under the direction of Blundell and Matthew Aubin – play two concerts this weekend at their home base at St. Paul’s Church, 315 W 22nd St. The centerpiece of both programs, Friday, Sept 9 at 8:30 PM and then the following night, Sept 10 at 7:30 PM is Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Friday’s bill is especially enticing, with Zhou Long’s orchestral arrangements of Chinese folk songs plus the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto with soloist Rachel Seiden. Saturday night’s program switches out the Strauss for the Elgar Cello Concerto; suggested donation is $20.