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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Stormy, Epically Relevant Jazz Standard Show by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

In their late set last night at the Jazz Standard, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society threw caution to the wind with a stormy, careeningly dynamic career retrospective of sorts. Which isn’t what you might expect from the conductor’s intricate, tightly clustering compositions. But this era’s most thrilling, relevant large jazz ensemble’s approach perfectly fit his material’s relentless angst, white-knuckle suspense and cynically cinematic, Shostakovian portraiture.

Argue’s albums are meticulously orchestrated and produced – which is not to imply that they suffer from the digital sterility of so many big band albums these days. Even so, this show was especially fresh and full of surprises. The group opened somewhat counterintuitively with an older tune, Flux in a Box – Argue explained that he took the title of the subtly polyrhythmic, Jim McNeely-like number, with its cell-like mini-spirals and bursts, from a vast, sarcastic fictitious filmography in a David Foster Wallace novel. Alto saxophonist Alexa Tarentino chose her moments carefully for variations on staggered, fragmented phrases, pianist Adam Birnbaum offering comfortably lyrical contrast.

Then they immediately launched into the ferocious, fearlessly political material Argue has made a name for himself with in recent years. First was a series of tunes from his withering critique of gentrification, Brooklyn Babylon, kicking off with Matt Clohesy’s mighty bass chords, Sebastian Noelle’s resonant guitar astringencies, a vividly nightmarish portrait of grand construction schemes run horribly amok. Seemingly hell-bent on getting to the end, they leapt through tense pairings of instruments among the band’s eighteen members to a harried take of Coney Island, which was strangely more enigmatic here than the album’s horror-stricken, plaintive coda.

Three pieces from the group’s latest conspiracy and conspiracy theory-themed album, Real Enemies were next on the bill. Amped up to a level remarkable at this sonically pristine spot, The Enemy Within came across as a mashup of the Theme from Shaft and the Taxi Driver theme as done by an epic version of John Zorn’s Spy Vs. Spy, maybe. Dark Alliance had wry woozy P-Funk textures grounded by relentless Bernard Herrman-esque glimmer and ghostly flickers, alto saxophonist Dave Pietro resisting any possible urge to find any kind of resolution in his exquisitely troubled, modal solo. A duel with trombonist Ryan Keberle followed – not waterboarder and waterboardee, but allusively so.

The last of the triptych was the mighty, swaying Trust No One, Carl Maraghi’s serpentine baritone sax solo giving way to a sudden dip to creepy knock-knock riffs, deep-space pointillisms from Birnbaum and Noelle jumpstarting a flitting poltergeist choir from the saxes. They closed with Transit and its fiery, cloudbursting drama. Argue explained that he’d written it on a Fung Wah bus enroute from Boston to Chinatown – no wonder it’s so scary! In that context, the constant dodges between phrases rushing by, not to mention the irresistibly fun trick ending, made perfect sense. Trumpeter Jason Palmer’s solo turned out to be more of an expert series of Route 495 twists and turns than the launching pad for pyrotechnics that it usually is in concert. The takeaway: a frequently riveting performance by a crew also including but not limited to multi-reedman Sam Sadigursky, trumpeters Seneca Black and Nadje Noordhuis; trombonists Jacob Garchik, Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton and drummer Jon Wikan.

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August 30, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

High-Voltage Suspense and State-of-the-Art Big Band Jazz From Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Uptown Saturday Night

The suspense was relentless throughout Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society’s sold-out concert Saturday night at the Miller Theatre. Although a couple of numbers on the bill had genuinely visceral suspense narratives, there was no central mystery theme. That’s just the way Argue writes. What a thrill!

Throughout the show, four of the composer/conductor’s favorite tropes jumped out over and over again: artful variations on simple, acerbic hooks; circular phrases that widened and sometimes contracted; unexpected pairings between instruments, and high/low contrasts that often took on a sinister quality. Gil Evans did a lot of that, but drawing on vintage swing; Argue does that with just as much symphonic sweep, but more acidic harmonies.

Obviously, with a eighteen-piece big band, there was a whole lot more to the night than just that. They opened the first of their two marathon sets with Phobos, a mighty showstopper from the group’s debut album Infernal Machines, inspired by the moon of Mars which will someday either crash into the planet or shatter under the force of gravity. Drummer Jon Wikan’s first ominously shuffling notes of the night introduced bassist Matt Clohesy’s grim, gothic riffs that bookended the piece, guitarist Sebastian Noelle’s smoldering chords looming behind the steady interweave of brass and reeds. Tenor saxophonist John Ellis’ lyrical solo proved to be a red herring.

They’d revisit that catchy, cinematic ominousness with a pulsing take of Transit, seemingly slower and more portentous than the album version, to close the first set with a mighty, cold ending that nobody but the band could see coming.

Blow-Out Prevention, a shout-out to Argue’s late influence Bob Brookmeyer, juxtaposed bright but astringent brass harmonies against a shifting, lustrous backdrop. All In, a tribute to the late, longtime Secret Society mainstay and “trumpet guru” Laurie Frink, got a Nadje Noordhuis trumpet solo which offered somber homage to her old bandmate, then took a triumphantly spiraling turn and eventually wound down against pianist Adam Birnbaum’s stately, Satie-esque minimalism.

Codebreaker, a salute to Alan Turing, bristled with spy-movie twists and turns but never went over the edge into John Barry-style menace. The second set was a performance of Argue’s recent, mammoth, labyrinthine Tensile Curves, inspired by Ellington’s Crescendo and Diminuendo in Blue. The bandleader, who was in rare form as emcee, explained that he’d decided to assemble the piece – a commission requiring a full forty minutes of music – as a study in subtle rhythmic decelerations. And much as it was a clinic in the use of that effect, it also was packed with innumerable dynamic shifts, a wryly squirrelly Sam Sadigursky clarinet solo, a much longer and eventually wildly churning one from trombonist Ryan Keberle, and a characteristically translucent one from trumpeter Adam O’Farrill – among other things.

Animatedly loopy phrases filtered throughout the ensemble, from a snide, nagging introductory theme through a final comfortable touchdown on the runway. Let’s hope this mighty tour de force makes it to the web – and maybe even a vinyl record – sooner than later. A towering performance for the rest of the crew, including but not limited to saxophonists Dave Pietro and Rob Wilkerson, baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi, trumpeters Seneca Black, Matt Holman and David Smith, trombonists Mike Fahie, Jacob Garchik and George Flynn.

The next show at the Miller Theatre is on Feb 13 at 6 PM with the Mivos Quartet playing new works by  Marisol Jimenez, Jeffrey Mumford, their own Victor Lowrie and Mariel Roberts. It’s one of the wildly popular free concerts here. Get there close to when the doors open at 5:30 and there might be free beer or wine; show up later and there probably won’t be.

February 6, 2018 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vibraphonist Behn Gillece Brings Catchy, Straight-Up Swing to Smalls

Vibraphonist Behn Gillece has been a fixture on the New York jazz scene for the past decade, notably in his project with one of this era’s great tenor sax player/composers, Ken Fowser. Gillece also has a cooker of a new album, Walk Of Fire due out mid-month from Posi-Tone Records and a show coming up on August 5 at 10:30 PM at his Manhattan home base, Smalls. Cover is the usual $20.

This is the most straight-ahead, unselfconsciously infectious stuff that the prolific, often ambitiously eclectic Gillece has come up with since his days with Fowser. The title track, a terse, brisk swing shuffle, opens the album. Listen closely to pianist Adam Birnbaum’s judicious, rhythmic chord clusters and you may get the impression that the song was originally written for Rhodes. Or maybe that’s just what vibraphonists come up with. Trombonist Michael Dease contributes a leapfrogging solo, and then the high-powered frontline – also comprising trumpeter Bruce Harris and tenor player Walt Weiskopf – are out.

Fantasia Brasileira, true to its title, is an easygoing bossa that Dease takes to New Orleans before Gillece ripples gracefully through the horn section’s big raindrop splashes.. Moodily resonant horns rise over bassist Clovis Nicolas and drummer Jason Tiemann’s blithe, latin-tinged, fingersnapping stroll in Bag’s Mood, Harris taking a low-key turn in the spotlight before the bandleader raises the ante.

Likewise, Dauntless Journey follows a balmy, allusively chromatic tangent out of Gillece’s resonant intro, maintained by Weiskopf, with brief elevation from Dease before the vibraphone subtly alters the groove. Battering Ram gives Weiskopf a launching pad for Weiskopf’s Coltrane-channeling, Dease’s contrasting gruffness and Birnbaum’s precise, rippling attack over quick, punchy, syncopation,

Gillece and Birnbaum blend subtly intertwining lines and then shift into separate lanes in the moody Reflective Current, a quartet number. Something New follows a similarly pensive, waltzing tempo: the point where the vamping grey-sky horns drop out completely makes a tasty jolt to the ears.  Specter, a catchy, vamping clave number, features Gillece’s most expansive but purposeful solo in this set and a welcome, tantalizingly brief confrontation between vibes and piano.

Break Tune has a subtle juxtaposition of steady, emphatic swing and allusive melody, echoed by Weiskopf before Gillece goes vamping and Harris spirals triumphantly. Artful metric shifts and Gillece’s rippling staccato raise the vamps of the concluding tune, Celestial Tidings above the level of generic. Marc Free’s production is characteristically crisp: the lows on System Two’s concert grand piano cut through as much as every flick of the cymbals.

August 3, 2017 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Sardonically Sinister Evening with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

It was a grim, grey day, sticky with global warming-era humidity. No sinister force could have conjured a more appropriate atmosphere for a concert inspired by conspiracy theories. As the eighteen-piece Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society assembled onstage this evening at National Sawdust for the album release show for their new one, Real Enemies, the trumpeters clustered around the piano, back to the audience. What on earth were they conspiring about?

The opened the show by playing into the piano: in other words, blowing into an echo chamber. The hint of natural reverb enhanced the squirrelly exchange of brass phrases, and the visual matched the music. This wasn’t the chattering groupthink that would recur several times, to mighty effect, throughout the concert, a performance of the new album in its entirety. Rather, this seemed to be a portrait of a paranoid personality, or personalities, all lost in their own universes and echoing only themselves. On album, the effect is unsettling; live, it was nothing short of comedic. But nobody in the crowd laughed.

The group’s previous album, Brooklyn Babylon, blended rat-a-tat Balkan brass, sardonically loopy prog-rock riffage, even more savage faux-pageantry and a blustery unease. This new album is closer to Stravinsky or Shostakovich in its darkest moments, which predominate what’s essentially a contiguous thirteen-part suite best experienced as a whole. The project, drawing on Kathryn Olmsted’s 2009 book Real Enemies, first took shape as a multimedia collaboration between composer/conductor Argue, writer/director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in the fall of 2015. This performance also featured voiceovers and samples – triggered by Argue from the podium – including some pretty killer quotes from George W. Bush (“We can’t wait any longer!” twice, from the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq), JFK and others. The suite wound up with the band swaying along to a long narration examining the paranoid mindset, actor James Urbaniak’s steady cadences echoing from the speakers overhead. Hardly an easy task for the group to stay locked in, but they .swung along with it

This is an amazing band. Brooklyn Babylon is punctuated by a series of miniatures which pair unusual combinations of instruments; Argue also pairs off instruments in this series of compositions, but more traditionally. The most spine-tingling one was early on, trombonist Ryan Keberle’s frenetic, deep-blues spirals up against Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant, angst-tinged flugelhorn. At the end, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen spun and dipped while tenor saxophonist Dave Pietro channeled his own sputtering galaxy, one of many caustically illustrative moments. And a deep-space duet between Adam Birnbaum – switching from grand piano to an echoey electric model – alongside guitarist Sebastian Noelle’s spare, austere lines was only slightly less cold and cynical.

Argue is an amazing composer. Withering humor was everywhere: in the constant, flittingly conversational motives, in subtle shifts from balminess to icy, Morricone-esque menace, and in the choice of samples, a couple of them seemingly tweaked from the album for extra irony. Lights and darks, highs and lows hung and swung in the balance as the composer – rocking a sharp suit and a sharp, short new haircut, maybe for extra sarcasm – calmly directed the ensemble through them. Maria Schneider may be the consensus choice as the standard of the world for big band composition, and she’s earned it (and has a political sensibility no less perceptive than Argue’s), but Argue’s work is just as strong. And this concert reaffirmed that he’s got a world-class crew to play it. This edition of the band included but wasn’t limited to most of the players on the album: multi-reedmen Lucas Pino, Peter Hess, Rob Wilkerson and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Seneca Black, Jonathan Powell and Jason Palmer; trombonists Mike Fahie and Jennifer Wharton; multi-bassist Matt Clohesy and dynamic drummer Jon Wikan.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society plays the album in its entirety at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at 465 Huntington Ave. on Oct 7 at 7:30 PM; general admission is $25.

October 2, 2016 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

September 29, 2016 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marshall Gilkes Puts Out a Gorgeous Album of Nocturnes

A theme and variations in the style of a classical sonata, trombonist Marshall Gilkes’ new Sound Stories is one of the most beautiful albums of nocturnes issued in recent years. Essentially a sequence of songs without words, it’s a richly memorable, warmly enveloping suite, evoking Brahms or Schubert as much as it does Frank Foster or Coltrane in particularly lyrical mode. Gilkes brings a direct clarity but also blues-infused nuance to his phrasing; tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin adds a welcome, occasionally acidic bite when he’s not contributing harmonies amidst the enveloping warmth and glimmer. Bassist Yasuhi Nakamura’s concise, incisive lines and drummer Eric Doob’s purposefully rumbling upward trajectories also serve to elevate Gilkes’ elegant compositions above the level of serene contentment.

A flamenco-infused riff anchored by pedal-point piano opens the first track, Presence, pianist Adam Birnbaum memorably setting the stage for the rest of his performance here with a vividly moody neoromantic waltz interlude. The second part’s variations feature smartly developed interplay between trombone and sax, McCaslin artfully shadowing the melody as it winds out. The second diptych here is perhaps sarcastically titled Anxiety – it’s a casual, unselfconsciously attractive ballad with intriguing dynamic and rhythmic shifts, dancing latin allusions, bass taking over as anchor in place of the piano and McCaslin’s slightly off-center lines adding just enough apprehension to give the listener pause without ruining the mood.

Downtime begins as a march and features some absolutely gorgeous horn harmonies, a tersely attractive bass solo and tinges of Celtic melody. A dramatic fanfare takes centerstage in the funky, early Herbie Hancock-inflected Slashes, a launching pad for some strikingly insistent teamwork between McCaslin and Doob. They go back to third-stream balladry – and a series of droll quotes from standards – with Bare, then build the original theme from slinky bossa to a bustle with Armstrong, the final diptych here, Gilkes taking a turn in the shadow role as a calming counterpart to McCaslin’s animated unease. First Song crystallizes the central theme as a wistful, glimmering cinematic main-titles piece: there’s a film or cable tv show out there that needs this. The final track, Thruway is where Gilkes throws caution to the wind and the band really cuts loose with a salsa-infused improvisational flair: it makes a triumphantly unexpected coda for a work otherwise defined by impeccable craftsmanship. Who is the audience for this? Jazz fans, obviously, although the sheer attractiveness of the tunes here will reach fans of both classical and pop music.

May 22, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment