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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

A Transcendent Big Band Jazz Twinbill with the Awakening Orchestra and Fabian Almazan’s Rhizome

Composer/conductor Kyle Saulnier’s mighty twenty-piece Awakening Orchestra played one of the year’s best concerts last month at Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus, on a fantastic doublebill with pianist Fabian Almazan‘s chamber jazz group, Rhizome. Saulnier’s most obvious comparison is Darcy James Argue, considering how fearlessly relevant and politically inspired the two composers’ recent work has been. Maria Schneider is another, in terms of epic sweep and textural lustre.

Pablo Masis introduced one of Saulnier’s favorite recent tropes, a long, searching trumpet solo to open the evening’s first song, an imaginative reinvention of the Low cult favorite, Murderer, sung over balmy high reed swirls and cloudbanks of brass by Julie Hardy and Seth Fruiterman. As would be the case throughout the performance, James Shipp’s lingering vibraphone provided unsettling, twinkling contrast, in the same vein as the Claudia Quintet, while trumpeter Seneca Black prowled the perimeter with a similar judicious unease, up to a simmering coda.

Jesse Lewis’ The Robert Frost Experiment gave alro saxophonist Vito Chiavuzzo a glistening backdrop for wistful pastoralisms, drummer Jared Schonig pushing toward a steady heroic theme, guitarist Michael McAllister adding enigmatic textures. Empty Promises, the second movement of Saulnier’s This Is Not the Answer suite from the band’s 2014 album, moved deftly from lushly nocturnal ambience to a steadier disquiet, echoing Bernard Herrmann with its subtly shifting rhythms, trumpet/high reeds dichotomies and a vivid wee-hours street scene of sorts from Chiavuzzo, rising to an angst-fueled peak.

As dynamic as the early part of the set was, the high point was Saulnier’s new election year suite, a work in progress. He explained that he’d originally envisioned the project as pretty grim, but that it had become much more complicated than that (Bernie Sanders had not yet conceded on Bastille Day, the date of this show). The first of these numbers, Free Labor, Free Land, Free Men draws on the original slogan of the Republican Party. Trombonist Willem De Koch supplied the wary, circumspect introduction, the orchestra reaching toward a vast, brooding panorama, Schonig finally kicking in and then turning it over to Shipp’s opaque atmospherics and then unexpectedly anthemic, psychedelic lines. De Koch’s wounded foghorn resonance took centerstage as early promise gave way to sheer dejection, chaos and then blaring, stentorian sarcasm. Let’s not forget that the Republicans began life as abolitionists. The second part, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité began with Aaron Kotler’s lyrical, neoromantically optimistic piano, RJ Avallone’s trumpet leading a bustling, swinging drive upward, Samuel Ryder’s bluesy tenor sax spiraling into a brief, harrowing conclusion.

Saulnier emphasized that he wanted to wind up the show on a positive note, and then led the group through a plush take of Hi-Lili, a summery chamber-pop reworking of an early 50s hit, Fruiterman on vocals. Altogether, a provocative and powerful performance by the group, which also featured saxophonists Andrew Gould, Andrew Gutauskas and Carl Maraghi; trumpeter Daniel Urness; trombonists Michael Boscarino, Matthew Musselman and Joe Barati, and bassist Nick Dunston. They return to Shapeshifter Lab to continue the suite this coming November 11 at 7:30 PM.

Almazan followed with a simlarly luminous, dynamic, more briskly paced set equally informed by neoromanticism and cutting-edge large ensemble jazz. The pianist fired off long, sinuous cascades, his balletesque leaps and bounds anchored on the low end by bassist Linda Oh, who really got a workout as the show went on. Guitarist Camila Meza added alternately misty and crystalline vocalese as well as decisive, emphatic chordal swells over the shifting sheets and tricky rhythmic pulse of a string quartet, fueled by the drums’ exuberant bluster. An anthemic, cinematic sweep gave way to brief, lively Afro-Cuban romps, a marionettish string interlude or two, allusions to Shostakovian horror and latin noir balladry. Following the Awakening Orchestra and managing not to be anticlimactic was quite the challenge, but Almazan and his crew delivered. He’s currently on West Coast tour; his next gig in that part of the world is on August 12 with support from the Aruan Ortiz Trio at the SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin St. in San Francisco. $15 tix are available.

August 6, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mighty, Intense Awakening Orchestra Sound the Alarm in Gowanus

Composer/conductor Kyle Saulnier’s twenty-piece Awakening Orchestra blend art-rock and classical music into their mighty big band jazz sound. They sound like no other group around: as the name implies, while they have the standard brass, reeds and rhythm section that you’d find in just about any other large jazz ensemble, Saulnier’s hefty arrangements drift toward the classical side. As a plus, a strong political awareness factors into his music. Economies of scale being what they are – they’re supported by the Midwest Composers Forum and its recording arm, Innova Records, one of the very few labels that still matter – the group rarely plays live. That’s why their upcoming show on July 14 at 7:30 PM at Shapeshifter Lab – where they’ll be continuing Saulnier’s ongoing 2016 election year-themed suite, a work in progress – is the place to be if powerful, enveloping sounds are your thing. As a bonus, eclectically tuneful pianist Fabian Almazan – who has a thing for Shostakovich – plays with his Rhizome ensemble afterward. Cover is $10.

The Awakening Orchestra’s most recent, 2014 debut release, Volume 1: This Is Not the Answer (streaming at Spotify) opens with Saulnier’s vampy, pulsing prelude and muted fanfare of sorts. From there they remind how aptly suited Radiohead songs are to mammoth orchestral interpretaiion, with a mighty version of Myxomatosis that uses the entire sonic spectrum, from towering heights to whispery lows; with a wispily mosterioso tenor sax solo from Samuel Ryder in the middle.

The epic The Words, They Fail to Come builds around the theme from the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, an even mightier, dynamically shifting epic featuring a vividly uneasy, epic solo from baritone saxophonist Michael Gutauskas, handing off to trombonist Michael Buscarino, who finally slam-dunks it. Then the band thunders through an Olympic stadium-sized reinvention of the old jazz standard Alone Together, lit up by Michael McAllister’s searing guitar and Felipe Salles’ surrealistic tenor sax.

Saulnier’s original, Protest rises from horror atmospherics, through an insistent, powerful pulse, to a glittering Mulholland Drive noctural interlude and then a frantic coda where all hell breaks loose. The first cd ends with a bulky chamber-jazz arrangement of You Still Believe in Me, by Wilson and Asher, whoever they are.

The second disc opens with the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2, which Saulnier has arranged very cleverly to seem as if it’s a prototype for Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme. It’s not, but Saulner gets props for having the ears and ambiiton to connect the dots as far as they go, and them some. The orchestra follows with Saulnier’s four-part suite, This Is Not The Answer, opening as a suspenseful tone poem and then rising to a circular exchange of sheets of sound over the rhythm section, Rob Mosher’s warily bubbling and then hazy soprano sax at the center as the backdrop descends into the murky, creepy depths. A sardonically swinging march beat and Middle Eastern allusions from David DeJesus’ alto sax offer equal parts relevance and menace.

Then the group completely flips the script with a balmy nocturnal theme lit up by Nadje Noordhuis’ deep-sky flugelhorn. From there the band shifts into the final section, The Hypocrite and the Hope (an assessment of the Obama administration?), an enervatedly bustling neo-70s Morricone-ish crime jazz theme and variations, with funhouse-mirror James Shipp vibraphone and some psychedelically unhinged McAllister shredding, As cinematic, electric crime themes go, it ranks with Bob Belden as well as with the aforementioned Italian guys.

Saulnier has the orchestra follow with a lush take of Murderer, by Low, the dancing twin trumpets of Noordhuis and Philip Dizack  contrasting with its looming atmospherics. Kevin Fruiterman sings the album’s final cut, Hi-Lili, Hi Lo, reinventing a cheesy early 50s Dinah Shore hit as Alan Parsons Project orchestral pop. Considering how much new material the band will be unveiling, it’s uncertain if they’ll be playing any of this live, but if so, that will be a plus.

July 6, 2016 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment