What’s the likelihood of being able to see this era’s most fearsomely relevant composer in big band jazz leading a diversely talented ensemble in a comfortable Manhattan auditorium, for free? It happened a couple of weeks ago at the New School, where Darcy James Argue conducted their newly created Studio Orchestra in a program of both well-known and more obscure works. And the great majority of the time, the group were up to the challenge.
It’s always fun to watch a student ensemble and try to figure out who the future stars are. That’s never obvious, since the best musician in the band might be out of the spotlight, working on his or her sight reading while the people getting solos might be the ones who need to step up that part of their game. At this show, one obvious pick was guitarist Theo Braun. Has Argue ever conducted a guitar player with such eclectic chops, who so thoroughly gets his material? Any composer would be lucky to be in that position.
Whether adding plaintive jangle, enigmatically ominous strolls through the unease of a handful of conspiracy theory-themed numbers from Argue’s haunting Real Enemies album, or careening and roaring along with the band in a particularly haphazard take of Transit, a bracing Fung Wah bus ride, Braun connected profoundly with the music. At times, he seamlessly interpolated a loop pedal into the music, no easy task, and he never fell back on too-cool-for-school scales or practice patterns. Obviously, no good musician should be that self-indulgent, but there are guys who’ve had long careers doing exactly that. Braun is a welcome exception.
Likewise, trombonist Isaac Poole is a rare musician with monster chops who doesn’t overplay. Throughout the night, he went deep into the blues and took a detour or two to New Orleans, showing off some blazing speed and command of extended technique not limited to high harmonics and duotones. Where Braun brought the darkness, Poole was the sun busting through it.
The unexpected material was fascinating, The group more or less eased their way into the set with the anthemically circling, Bob Brookmeyer-influenced Drift, then stampeded through the faux pageantry and bluster of The Tallest Tower in the World, the caustic critique of narcissism run amok from Argue’s Brooklyn Babylon album. Another track from that collection, Coney Island, was affectingly plaintive.
With its shift from tense, cell-like Philip Glass-ine phrases to more envelopingly nocturnal ambience, Redeye was a very convincing portrait of sleep deprivation. Argue explained a triptych of slinky, noirish numbers from Real Enemies as exploring the right wing’s vested interest in conspiracy theories as tools for disempowerment: if the Illuminati control the world, for instance, what’s the use in voting?
The orchestra wound that sequence up with Casus Belli, which Argue said was inspired by Operation Northwoods, an early 60s proposal for the CIA or its proxy to blow up a civilian airliner as a false flag attempt to start a war with the Soviet Union: in that sense, 9/11 has a long backstory. The song’s broodingly kinetic salsa-jazz theme imagines the plotters working out the details as a Catskill mambo band plays in the background at some cheesy upstate resort.
The group also swayed their way through Last Waltz for Levon, a gospel-tinged elegy for Levon Helm which Argue had begun writing as a final salute to Dave Brubeck before pastoral jazz crept into it.
If the exact same crew who played this gig are onstage for their next one, so much the better. They all deserve a shout: Melvin Carter, Sade Whittier, Alain Mitrailler, Bapiste Horcholle and Benjamin Huff on saxes; Michelle Hromin on clarinet and bass clarinet; Louis Arques on bass clarinet; Jose Valle, Joshua Bialkin, Moe Feinberg, Raul Rios and Elijah Michaux on trumpets; Valerio Aleman, Rebecca Patterson and Olivia Gadberry filling out the trombone section; Benjamin Appel on piano and Nord Electro; Jonathan Livnate and Arturo Valdez Aguilar alternating on electric and acoustic bass; and Parker Trent on drums.