Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

Winter Jazzfest 2014: The Best One Yet, At Least From a Saturday Perspective

The lure of Winter Jazzfest over the last decade or so has been the potential for serious bang for the buck: a marathon of jazz festival stars, cult heroes and heroines jammed into two nights on the Bleecker Street strip. Like the best jazz improvisation, Winter Jazzfest can be transcendent. By the same token, recent years have had many maddening moments, lines outside the clubs gowing to ridiculous proportions, especially as crowds armed with ostensibly all-access passes reached critical mass during the Saturday portion of the festival.

Solution: move the bigger draws to bigger venues. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society sure to sell out a Saturday night gig (which they did, no surprise)? Move ‘em to the expansive, sonically exquisite confines of Subculture. Henry Threadgill leading a new ensemble through an American premiere? No problem. Stick ’em in Judson Church, a comfortable stone’s throw from the West 4th Street subway. This may have been a long overdue move on the part of the festival’s producers, but it couldn’t have been more successful. By midnight, a couple of venues were filled to capacity, but although crowds at the other spaces were strong, there was plenty of room for everybody who was still up for more music.

Argue’s big band threatened to upstage everything else on Saturday’s bill.  How does the composer/conductor keep so much suspense and intensity going when his changes tend to be so static and often so far between? With endlessly surprising, constantly shifting voices, subtle rhythmic variations and a voracious approach to blending genres: the foundations of his songs may go on for what seems forever, but there are a million tunes wafting overhead. They opened with All In, a steadily strolling, spicily brassy homage to the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, its centerpiece being a thoughtfully energetic Nadje Noordhuis trumpet solo. From there they dove into the opening suite from the ensemble’s latest album Brooklyn Babylon (rated #1 for the year at this blog‘s Best Albums of 2013 page). The whole group reminded how much fun, not to mention aptitude, they have for Balkan music, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen wowing the crowd with her blazing chromatics. From there, Adam Birnbaum’s creepy music box piano kicked off the jackhammer optimism of The Neighborhood, roaring boisterousness juxtaposed with uneasily flitting motives from the reeds. Argue brought that disquiet front and center by fast-forwarding to the brooding Coney Island; they closed with a pastoral Levon Helm dedication, Last Waltz for Levon, featuring a moody, wistful Ryan Keberle trombone solo and a similarly bittersweet duet for Sebastian Noelle’s strummed acoustic guitar and Matt Clohesy’s bass..

Over at Judson Church, the crowd gathered slowly in anticipation of Threadgill’s set and was treated to a magically crepuscular one from pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman, the duo alternating compositions. He built to a bracing series of glissandos and trills on his opening number over her hypnotic, harplike inside-the-piano brushings; she followed with a resonant, lingering piece that rose to a creepy altered boogie of sorts. They gave a Feldman suite based on the Orpheus/Eurydice myth a dynamic intensity, brooding sostenuto up against angst-fueled swells and ebbs and ended on a quieter, more suspenseful note with a Courvoisier work.

Threadgill was on the bill to conduct the American premiere of his Butch Morris tribute Old Locks and Irregular Verbs with his new Ensemble Double Up. This turned out to be very much like Morris at the top of his game. Rather than playing purely improvised music, Morris’ larger ensembles would develop variations on a theme or two, sometimes utilizing a couple of pages of composition, and this suite had that kind of ring. Pianist Jason Moran opened with a mournfully elegaic, spaciously funereal, bell-like introduction that rose from stygian depths toward the kind of blues/gospel allusions that Morris liked to employ. From there Threadgill introduced a classically-tinged, anticipatory theme that Jose Davila’s tuba propelled upward in methodical stairstepping waves in tandem with Craig Weinrib‘s trap drums, Curtis Macdonald and Roman Filiu’s alto saxes blustery and atmospheric in turn over cellist Christopher Hoffman’s uneasy ambience. The group followed the long first movement with two shorter variations, the first opening with dancing, bubbly reeds and fluid upper-register piano, the second kicking off with glimmering resonance from pianist David Virelles, moving toward a distant overture of sorts and a bittersweetly triumphant if somewhat muted coda. It made for an aptly elegant sendoff for a guy who did so much, so elegantly, for largescale improvisation.

Over in the boomy sonics of Vanderbilt Hall at NYU Law School, Mostly Other People Do The Killing had some of the crowd doubled over laughing and some of the older attendees scratching their heads. New York’s funniest, most entertaining band in any style of music, never mind jazz, have a new album out, Red Hot, which parodies every 20s hot jazz trope ever ground into shellac, and the group aired out several of those tunes with characteristically unstoppable verve. What makes MOPDtK so funny is that they really know their source material. For fifteen-second intervals, it was easy to get into toe-tapping mood…but then the band would do something wry or droll or ridiculous and throw a wrench in the works. Trumpeter Peter Evans built an echoey, reverb-infused vortex with endless swirls of circular breathing early on, which bass trombonist David Taylor took to vastly greater deep-space extremes later in the set.

Pianist Ron Stabinsky got plenty of laughs out of a solo that was mostly pregnant pauses, then got people howling with a medley of licks that began in the jazz pantheon but then spanned from Billy Joel to Foreigner…and then to Bach and Beethoven. Bassist/bandleader Moppa Elliott, drummer Kevin Shea and guest guitarist Jon Lundbom seemed preoccupied with getting the brief period-perfect bits back on track while Evans and alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon (who’d just played tenor and bass clarinet for Argue) engaged in characteristically snide, mealymouthed banter. It wouldn’t be fair to give away the rest of the jokes that continued throughout compositions with titles like Seabrook. Power. Plant. (named after frequent MOPDtK guest Brandon Seabrook’s band as well as three towns in Pennsylvania), the Shickshinny Shimmy, Turkey Foot Corner and King of Prussia.

Eyebone, guitarist Nels Cline’s eclectically assaultive, swirling power trio with drummer Jim Black and pianist Teddy Klausner was next and made a similarly energetic alternative to Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, who were scheduled to hit around the same time at the church up the block. They opened with jarringly percolating, fleetingly leaping phrases from Cline’s loop pedals and then hit a deep-water ominousness, went into atmospherics and then a riff-driven, metalish interlude. Klausner followed a Cline descent into messy, muddy terrain with one of his own, then the band brought it up with a roar, ending their set with an aggressiveness that made a great segue with Elliott Sharp’s Orchestra Carbon.

E-Sharp didn’t even play guitar in this set, but his tenor sax work mirrors what he does on the frets. It was cool to see the man of a million notes and ideas leading the group through a defly animated workout on minimalist chamber themes. His vigorous, emphatic direction and playing were mirrored by the ensemble, heavy on the low end with twin basses and trombones, Jessica Pavone and Judith Insell on violas plus Jenny Lin on piano and Danny Tunick nimbly negotiating between drums, various percussion and vibraphone. They kicked off with a mighty, Zarathustra-ish theme punctured by the occasional squall or shriek, blustery diversion or Braxton-esque atmospheric swell. Sharp carved out lots of pairings: Pavone an anchor to Lin’s rapidfire knuckle-busting octave attack, the trombones channeling a stormy orchestral bustle, filling the sonic picture from bottom to top, the basses doing the same later on. Sharp filled the brief spaces between movements with fleeting, supersonic upper-register passages and frantic flurries of bop, eventually bringing everything full circle with a series of long, suspenseful, almost imperceptibly crescendoing waves upward.

And that’s where the night ended on this end. There was still plenty going on – fusiony funk downstairs at le Poisson Rouge, and was that Craig Handy coincidentally leading that organ groove outfit at Groove? The place was packed; it was hard to see. And the line for the Marc Cary Focus Trio at Zinc Bar stretched around the block – good for him. Matthew Shipp’s trio set back at Judson Church wasn’t scheduled to start yet, but by this time, the prospect of a third consecutive marathon evening of music looming on the horizon and the rain having finally let up, it was time to take advantage of a grace period from the skies and call it an evening. Here’s looking forward to Winter Jazzfest 2015.

January 12, 2014 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

November 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Future Looks Bright for Jazz & Colors

The second annual Jazz & Colors festival in Central Park was a success for the same reasons that Make Music NY has been such a failure: time and temperature. Sometimes it’s that simple. Make Music NY synchronizes itself with the worldwide Fête de la Musique (the annual French busk-a-thon) on the June 21 solstice, meaning that musicians playing outdoor spaces around town wait til the sun goes down before they start, just as any reasonable person would. And by then, the rush hour crowd has rushed home to their air conditioning, or at least their window fans. Jazz & Colors, on the other hand, is held on the weekend, this particular Saturday on an absolutely gorgeous, brisk afternoon, and while crowds could have been bigger, they were a good representation of the vast expanse of demographics that make up this city. A scattering of diehards raced across the park to catch their favorite acts, a smattering of tourists seemed smitten by the chance to see so many big names for free, while random groups of New Yorkers from across the age spectrum – many among them who probably can’t afford jazz club prices – took in an eclectic, energetic bunch of performances.

How do you find your way around Jazz & Colors? With a map. This year there was one available online, and there were helpful volunteers handing out copies at the 72nd Street entrance on the west side as well as at some of the performance sites. The concept this year was to have everybody play the same two set lists, mostly standards, with a few unexpected treats and a little room for originals. Placement of the acts playing the roughly four-hour festival was perfect. There was none of the sonic competition you get between stages at, say, a Lollapalooza or Warped Tour, yet the distance between bands was short enough to encourage ambitious spectators to catch several and maybe compare interpretations and arrangements.

Pianist Arturo O’Farrill, leading his explosive Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra from behind a real grand piano on the Naumburg Bandshell, sardonically thanked the promoters for “Telling us what songs to play,” although he hastened to add that this had been a valuable learning experience. Unhappy with one arrangement they’d devised, they’d tossed it out and come up with a new one on the fly. Toward the end of one characteristically high-voltage Afro-Cuban romp, he gave his bassist a solo – who says that playing bass in a big band is a thankless task? They eventually went off set list for Las Vegas Tango, doing it as a psycho mambo that practically outdid Gil Evans and was too much fun to be vengeful, although a crescendo or two more might have pushed it past redline. Then they did their “We Live in Brooklyn Baby Milongo,” as O’Farrill put it, mambo-izing Roy Ayers’ many-times-sampled groove.

To the north and west, alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry was playing a similarly groove-driven set, leading a quartet with bass, drums and electric piano through a mesmerizingly pulsing, tropical take of A Night in Tunisia, swapping Eastern Hemisphere for the west. Then they kicked off Ray Noble’s Cherokee as brightly trad, tiptoeing swing before fattening it with a Nuyorican sway, Terry eventually swapping his sax for a chekere and adding another layer of irresistible rhythmic energy. A little further south, Brian Charette‘s organ “sextette” turned in one of the funniest and least expected moments of the afternoon on the turnaround out of the chorus of an otherwise aptly moody, shadowy Harlem Nocturne, where the horns all went crazy for a bar or two before the verse slunk around again  They also made sly ghetto lounge jazz out of Take the A Train, swung Coltrane’s Grand Central Station hard with solos from alto and tenor sax, flute and bass clarinet, and gave Terry a run for his Cuban money with that same Dizzy Gillespie tune, Charette playing basslines with his left hand since he didn’t have his Hammond B3 with the pedals.

Meanwhile, just up the hill, bassist Russell Hall was leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars – in this case, a quartet that seemed to be a mostly student ensemble – with a purist but puckish touch, at one point wrly kicking off a solo with some unexpected, sotto vocce high horn voicings when the tenor saxophonist passed him the baton. And it was good to be able to catch the tail end of the string-driven Marika Hughes & Bottom Heavy outside the Delacorte Theatre, featuring the bandleader on cello and vocals along with Charlie Burnham on violin plus bass, guitar and drums. Hughes sang without a mic, but she didn’t need it, wrapping up her set with a richly bittersweet, darkly bluesy “love song to New York and Gil Scott-Heron.” By now, clouds had settled in overhead and fingers were getting cold, so the conclusion was timed perfectly. There were many other A-list bandleaders playing across the park, including but not limited to drummer Kim Thompson, baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall, klezmer-jazz trumpeter Frank London, bassist Gregg August, guitarist Joel Harrison, violinist Jason Kao Hwang and over a dozen other groups. If jazz is your thing – and if you’re reading this, it probably is –  and you’re in New York a year from now, don’t miss this festival.

November 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting Darcy James Argue’s Brooklyn Babylon

[originally published at Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]

With a big boost from the media, Brooklyn’s own Darcy James Argue is the best-known of the latest crop of big band jazz composers. That he’s received so much ink probably has more to do with the tastes of the critics who like him than it does with Argue himself, whose music is vivid, often explosive and cinematic to the nth degree. It’s also often a lot closer to indie classical than what most people would call jazz, inspired more by avant garde composers like Steve Reich than by, say, Dizzy Gillespie. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society brings those high-voltage,cutting-edge sounds to the Jazz Gallery on Nov 7 with sets at 9 and 10:30 PM; cover is $20. The new upstairs Jazz Gallery space at Broadway and 27th St. is bigger than the venue’s old Soho digs, but not by a lot, so early arrival is very highly recommended.

Their album Brooklyn Babylon is more hard-hitting and insistent rhythmically than it actually swings. Argue distinguishes himself by using the entirety of the sonic spectrum, from the lowest lows to the highest highs. Unorthodox instrumentation is standard procedure for him: the idea of pairing an accordion with the bass for a wistfully bluesy duet , which he does on one of the many brief, suspenseful interludes here, is second nature. He likes Balkan music and writes it fluently. As the title alludes, context and content beyond simple tunefulness is central to Argue’s work. For those who haven’t already discovered it, this is an important album in New York history, a very uneasy suite of variations on a theme illustrating a city in constant flux, often changing for the worse.

The album’s opening Prologue quickly emerges from waves crashing into the shore and a mournful trombone theme to a rat-a-tat Balkan brass dance that ends on a creepy, carnivalesque note fueled by the piano. The Neighborhoood pulses tensely over a looped, circular rhythm driven by electric bass, then moves up and down, a pensive waltz with klezmer-tinged clarinet giving way to a brief, roaring guitar rock interlude. An Invitation brings in a dancing, blithe circular theme from the high reeds and then low pulse kicks in, in the same vein as the Taxi Driver theme, part Reich, part Morricone.

The Tallest Tower in the World bookends a stately trumpet-fueled march in 9/4 around an uneasy neo-baroque interlude. Construction-Destruction begins with a lushly airy apprehension, morphs into a Bernard Herrmann-ish horror film prelude and then brings back the low, ominously insistent pulse against a rattling, mechanical guitar note – it’s the most cinematic piece here and possibly the key to the whole album. By the time the sarcastically pounding wah-wah guitar drama of Builders kicks in, the narrative has become clear: this city is being bludgeoned to death, remade into a suburb of its former self.

Missing Parts wryly creates a forest of echo effects with the whole orchestra, everything from bongos to accordion to baritone sax and a frantic group of high reeds getting in on the action. The faux pomp and pageantry that kicks off Grand Opening is as irresistibly over-the-top as it is cruelly satirical: this should be a celebration, but the angst never lets up, all the way through one of the most crushing crescendos ever in big band jazz. It segues into Coney Island, its moody sway punctuated by a biting, distorted guitar solo that only seems to be a diversion from the gloom. The Epilogue opens with a sad, echoey acoustic guitar intro, rises with a tersely loungey piano solo and then winds its way out on a muted, somewhat defeated, nocturnal note.

The first of the several short interludes that punctuate the storyline here makes wry funk out of a simple Serbian-flavored riff, a clever mashup of Balkan and blues. The next one pairs creepily warped, microtonal flutes. Beyond that accordion-bass duet, there’s a moody trumpet piece; an understatedly desolate classical guitar miniature; and an agitated reprise of the brooding Balkan theme. Their sheer diversity attests to Argue’s command of eclectic styles for both small and large ensembles to evoke a mood or make a point. If there was ever a composer in need of a Hollywood epic to give him a launching pad for a legendary score, this is the guy.

November 1, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment