Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Bring Their Intense, Politically Relevant, Cutting-Edge Big Band Jazz to BAM This Week
Starting tonight, November 18 and continuing through November 22 at 7:30 PM, New York’s arguably most intense, poliitically relevant, cutting-edge large jazz ensemble, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society plays a stand they’ve earned many times over, at BAM’s Harvey Theatre. $25 seats are still available as of today. To credit composer/conductor Argue’s long-running vehicle – who made their debut in the basement of CB’s Gallery just over ten years ago – for maintaining an unflinching, uncompromisingly populist worldview is in no way intended as a dis to another mighty big band, Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, whose latest album The Offense of the Drum confronts some of the most troubling issues facing urban areas, and this city in particular. But where O’Farrill’s music finds guarded optimism in a celebration of indomitable creativity among even the most impoverished, Argue’s Secret Society’s most recent album, Brooklyn Babylon, reaches much darker conclusions. At the band’s most recent New York concert, a ten-year anniversary bash at the Bell House, Argue spoke derisively of “the destruction of Brooklyn” when introducing songs from that wildly ambitious, tightly wound and often utterly chilling suite, a coldly sober narrative of gentrification and its discontents, seen through the eyes of a construction worker who ends up watching in horror as one grandiose project after another takes its grim toll.
Argue’s latest suite, Real Enemies – which the band is going to air out at BAM – is even more ambitious. Its central theme is conspiracy theories. At the Bell House, Argue explained with just the hint of a grin that “You have to choose which ones to believe.” And then offered a tantalizing preview with two new pieces, both with an epic, cinematically noir sweep, the first evocative of early 70s Morricone scores, with a relentless, driving clave rhythm and wide-eyed, terrorized brass crescendos, The second was more muted and brooding but also featuring a lot of moody latin riffage from drummer Jon Wikan.
A triptych of songs – and these pieces are songs in the most genuine sense of the word – from Brooklyn Babylon were just as gripping. The insistent, increasingly agitated staccato and tricky syncopation of Construction-Destruction and eventually the morose, defeated seaside tableau Coney Island were the centerpieces of the show, amidst some older material which, if probably inadvertently, made for a good career retrospective. Lower-register instruments, especially, were given prominent features in the hands of baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi, trombonists Mike Fahie and Ryan Keberle, everyone in the 24-piece ensemble firing on an extra cylinder, it seemed, through the epic outer-space flight of Moon of Mars, the stormy wave motion of a portrait of an island off the Canadian coast – a ruggedly crescendoing number that’s sort of Argue’s Hebrides Overture – as well as some unexpectedly straight-up oldschool swing.
Trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis did double duty, adding her concisely soaring sonics to this group as well as opening the show with her innovative and richly melodic quintet featuring Sara Caswell on violin, Vitor Goncalves on piano and accordion, Matt Clohesy on bass and Jared Schonig on drums. It’s easy to see how Argue and Noordhuis would be drawn to each others’ music: both favor long upward trajectories, proportions that edge toward the titanic and intricate permutations on simple, repeating themes. Her group opened with a slowly crescendoing, rather epic trans-oceanic Australia-to-New York travelogue, then brought things down with a plaintive trio eletgy dedicated to the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, moving through enigmatic nuevo tango and back up again into blazingly triumphant, anthemic territory.