Darcy James Argue Brings His Brooklyn Babylon to the Jazz Gallery
Three generations ago, big jazz bands were the U2 or Rolling Stones of their time. They didn’t play stadiums, but they gigged constantly at hotel ballrooms and were a profitable enterprise for everyone concerned. These days, big band jazz is a niche that doesn’t make much if any money for anyone other than the few venues who book it. And yet there are diehards who continue to write it, and play it, and push the envelope with it. 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.