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.