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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

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

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