Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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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

Bright and Dark Shades of Cutting-Edge Big Band Jazz in Gowanus

Bassist Robert Sabin did triple duty the night of one of the year’s best twinbills this past Tuesday at Shapeshifter Lab, first leading his own group, Humanity Part II, then playing two sets with trombonist John Yao‘s explosive, vividly cinematic large 17-Piece Instrument big band. Yao wasn’t the only one with cinematic compositions: Sabin’s were just as vivid, and vastly darker. Nobody writes more evocatives dirges than this guy.

Guitarist Jesse Lewis opened the night’s first number, Scarecrow, as he’d often do throughout the set, building opaque washes of sound before Sabin and drummer Jeremy Noller joined him. Sabin’s compositions in this project draw as as much on classical and film music as jazz. Although this piece and others rose to lustrous peaks fueled by trumpeters Dan Urness and Matt Holman, alto saxophonist Aaron Irwin and tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby, the mood was typically somber, no surprise since Sabin’s latest album features what appears to be a corpse lying in the woods on the cd cover. Horn player Chris Komer contributed a methodically percolating solo midway through, over the group’s nebulous, midtempo swing.

Rigby’s bittersweetly minimalist tenor rose out of the mist as the group built Scarecrow to an uneasiliy soaring web of tersely echoing phrases, with a long trumpet solo out. Elegaically tolling bell-like motives permeated the wounded Tenebre. a quiet showstopper with saxes switched out for brooding clarinets as it gathered steam, Rigby’s gentle solo flickering amist angst-tinged swells, echoed by tuba player Ben Stapp. The mighty, steady, melancholy brass harmonies and eventually the creepy cha-cha that followed brought to mind Gil Evans’ iconically noir early 60s work, as did much of the rest of Sabin’s material.

After Ghost, a hypnotically resonant tone poem with some deliciously dynamic frenetic-to-calm guitar by Lewis, Sabin opened Through a Glass Darkly, prowling around in the murk with his bow. Lewis joined him with some harrowing David Gilmour phrasing, brooding modalities from Yao (who was also doing double duty) and Rigby leading the funeral procession out. The group closed with a similarly dark reworking of Ennio Morricone’s Humanity Part II and a low-key, enveloping update on the old folk song Pretty Polly

Awhile ago a certain extrovert drummer was asked to explain his large ensemble’s success. “We play jazz for tourists,” he explained. As colorful, and tuneful, and imagistically crystalline as Yao’s compositions are, there ought to be a Manhattan jazz club willing to give him a place to entertain the crowds and represent this city with music that’s every bit as accessible as the schlock that guy’s band plays but is also cutting-edge. Oh yeah – Yao already does when he plays with Arturo O’Farrill’s band and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Still, his music would resonate with a vastly wider audience.

Yao’s mighty ensemble opened with the grittily swinging Hellgate, Rigby (another guy playing the whole marathon evening) at the center between contrasting flutter and buoyancy. Slow Children, a vividly urban tableau with the composer on trombone, showcased incisive parallel voicings, Rigby pairing off against the brass and holding his own, then a warm interlude with trombone and the rhythm section over a steady clave.

Early Morning Walk took the bustle, and distant angst, up another notch, a multi-part extravaganza with hints of funk, latin soul, a ballestesque Sabin bass solo and a big rush-hour peak: what started with maybe a dog walk and a couple of errands ended with a pretty frenetic train ride. By contrast, Flip-Flop – the title track to Yao’s most recent album with this group – featured an animated, jovial conversation between Irwin and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry as the piece followed an almost impercetibly steady upward trajectory toward lickety-split intensity.

Where Sabin’s work evoked Gil Evans in the 1960s, Yao’s Out of Socket brought to mind the Miles David collaborator’s lively, blustery dance band charts from ten years earlier, winding up with the brass blazing on a droll parade riff. Jesse Stacken’s meticulously looping piano anchored the clever echo phrases in Illumination, baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro fueling a long, purposeful crescendo before Stacken added neoromantically lustrous cascades. Artfully implied rhythm shifts and hints of tropicalia figured in First Step, Alejandro Aviles’ soprano sax flights giving way to boisterous low brass. They closed with an expansive, hard-swinging take of Herbie Hancock’s Fingerpainting. There were also two resonant, minimalistic, rhythmless miniatures, designed to employ extended technique from the rhythm section as color, Yao explained. Altogether, a fiery and rewarding performance for the rest of the band, including trumpeters Nick Marchione, Jason Wiseman, Dave Smith and Andy Gravish; trombonists Matt McDonald, Mike Fahn, Eric Miller and bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton and drummer Vince Cherico.

Yao’s big band is back at Shapeshifter on April 5 at 8:15 PM; baritone saxophonist Frank Basile‘s sextet opens the night at 7, with a $10 cover.

March 21, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

State-of-the-Art Big Band Jazz and a Shapeshifter Show by John Yao’s 17-Piece Instrument

John Yao is one of New York’s elite trombonists, and a frequent performer with both Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.Yao is also a first-class, ambitious and witty composer and leader of his own all-star large ensemble, John Yao’s 17-Piece Instrument. They have a new album, Flip-Flop, and a release show at 7 PM on June 17 at Brooklyn’s home for big band jazz, Shapeshifter Lab, with sets at 7 and 8:15 PM and an enticingly low $10 cover.

As you might imagine from a trombonist, the album is a big, bright, brassy extravaganza. But it’s also full of unexpected dynamics, dips and rises, imaginative voicings and occasional sardonic humor. The title track bookends punchy brass exchanges around a couple of long sax-and-rhythm-section vectors upward, John O’Gallagher on alto and Rich Perry on tenor, the two engaging in a genial conversation midway through. New Guy is Yao at his sardonic best: a moody, syncopated vamp with fluttery brass gives way to punchy swing with cleverly echoing voices, Andy Gravish’s stairstepping trumpet leading into to more serioso trombone from Yao and then a pugilistic exchange that builds to a hopeful crescendo and then a memorable punchline.

Slow Children at Play follows a bright, balmy clave stroll, echoing Yao’s work with the O’Farrill band, with a warmly considered Rich Perry tenor sax solo that builds to a lively exchange with the brass, followed by a summery trombone-and-rhythm-section interlude. It’s very New York. For that matter, the same could be said for the two “soundscapes” here, group improvisation in a Butch Morris vein, the first a luminously suspenseful intro of sorts with shivery violin at its center, the second with a similarly apprehensive, cinematic sweep.

With a blazing brass kickoff, impressively terse yet punchy David Smith trumpet solo and bustling Jon Irabagon tenor sax solo, the gritty swing tune Hellgate is the most trad and also the catchiest number here. Opening with Yao’s own moody trombone, Reflection shifts toward noir, its resonant, shifting sheets building a tensely expectant ambience with a lull for pianist Jesse Stacken’s brooding excursion and then a rewardingly brass-fueled crescendo. Yao’s sense of humor and aptitude for relating a good yarn take centerstage on Ode to the Last Twinkie, its playful echo effects and Jon Irabagon’s droll, eye-rolling tenor sax offering a nod to Arnold Schoenberg.

Illumination also features those echoes that Yao likes so much, a much more serious piece with Alejandro Aviles’ spiraling flute and Frank Basile’s energetic baritone sax over a tensely hypnotic piano riff, the brass falling into place with a mighty domino effect, Stacken adding a cascading, neoromantically-tinged break. The album winds up with the hard-swinging Out of Socket. Taken as a whole, it’s a tight, adrenalizing performance by a collection of first-call NYC jazz talent that also includes trumpeters John Walsh and Jason Wiseman; Luis Bonilla, Matt McDonald, Kajiwara Tokunori and Jennifer Wharton; Tim Armacost on tenor sax;  Robert Sabin on bass and Vince Cherico on drums. As the album’s just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but Yao has lots of good stuff on his music page including several of these tracks.

June 15, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

High Voltage from the South Florida Jazz Orchestra

The title of the South Florida Jazz Orchestra’s new album Trumpet Summit is a dead giveaway. Interestingly, for a Miami-based band, this ferocious stuff is less Cuban-influenced than it is cinematic (although they crank up Roberto Quintero’s congas and guest Martin Bejerano‘s tumbling piano on the blazing salsa highway theme Read My Lips). Bassist Chuck Bergeron leads this monstrosity nimbly: when the whole crew is going full steam, the effect is spectacular, but he saves those moments for when they’re needed, often focusing on a soloist backed by just the rhythm section and then working up a crescendo from there.

Their arrangement of Clifford Brown’s Daahoud makes a good, intense opener, with neat dixieland-flavored brass/reeds harmonies and a series of increasingly explosive trumpet solos. It’s not clear who’s doing what, but the cast – which includes Wayne Bergeron, Brian Lynch, Jason Carder,Greg Gisbert, Alex Norris, Cisco Dimas, Augie Haas and Kim Pensyl – has a great time with it.

One of the album’s most interesting numbers is a scorchingly original version of Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You. Guest vocalist Nicole Yarling reminds of Abbey Lincoln with her determined, nonchalant menace over a lushly pulsing arrangement with sudden tempo shifts. Blues for the Terrible Twos – a diptych, which makes sense – begins as a swing blues with more trumpet handoffs, then pianist Brian Murphy brings in a genially shuffling ragtime groove that one of the trumpets eventually takes all the way to the roof.

Peer Pressure, by Lynch has a suspenseful sweep and majesty, ominous low brass teaming with piano on the lows, trumpet and trombones driving the swells, drummer John Yarling adding aggressive, counterintuitive accents. Another Lynch tune, One for Mogie is a bluesy waltz with tv theme-style brightness, spiced with a surreal who-me tenor solo from Ed Calle and an insistent Murphy solo. Bergeron’s Good Addiction takes the album out on a high note with its almost imperceptible crescendos and scampering modalities, Murphy’s hypnotic, intense pedalpoint anchoring the cumulo-nimbus attack overhead. There’s also a richly moody, torchy take of Sophisticated Lady fueled by Murphy’s  third-stream chordal approach and Mike Brignola’s smoky, rustling baritone sax, plus a dynamically-charged version of All the Things You Are. Thumbs up to the rest of the players on this often wild ride: alto saxophonists Gary Keller and Gary Lindsay; tenor saxophonists Ed Maina and Ken Mattis; trombonists Dana Teboe, Dante Luciani, John Kricker and Joanna Sabater; bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton and timbalero Raymer Olalde. It’s out on Summit Records.

February 12, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment