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A Blissful Return For Arturo O’Farrill’s Paradigm-Shifting Afro-:Latin Jazz at Birdland

The live music meme in New York this summer is bliss. At his relentlessly entertaining show Sunday night at Birdland with his Afro-Latin Jazz Octet, pianist Arturo O’Farrill spoke to the “infinite loop” between musicians and audience, and how crucial that dynamic is for a performer The club wasn’t quite sold out, probably due to the impending storm outside, but you should have heard the thunderous standing ovation at the end of the show. That infinite loop resonated just as powerfully on both ends.

It helps that O’Farrill is a personable guy and loves to engage the crowd, but in a subtly erudite way. Since the 90s, he’s pushed the envelope about as far as anyone can go with what could loosely be called latin jazz, and he dares the listener to think along with him. And the band seemed as amped as he was to interact with everybody who’d come out.

Much as O’Farrill’s music is colorful and picturesque, there’s always a balance between unbridled passion and a zen-like discipline: nobody in this group overplays. At just about any concert, it’s almost inevitable that somebody gets carried away. Not this crew.

They opened with a broodingly Ellingtonian cha-cha and closed with a more exuberant salsa-jazz tune. Right off the bat, O’Farrill was busting loose: he gets all kinds of props as a composer, but we forget what a brilliant pianist he is. Lickety-split spiral staircase elegance, meticulously articulated yet spine-tingling cascades, moonlight sonatas that flashed by in seconds flat, DAMN. He didn’t confine all that to his opening solo, either.

Trumpeter Jim Seeley and trombonist Mariel Bildstein chose their spots, throughout a lot of deceptively sophisticated counterpoint. Whether everybody in the band is consciously aware of it or not, they’re all ultimately part of the rhythm section.

Bassist Bam Bam Rodriguez ranged from undulating grooves, to hazy uneasy, to a ridiculously comedic exchange with the bandleader late in the set. Drummer Vince Cherico is the secret timbalero in this project, particularly with his hypnotic rimshots, woodblock and bell. Conguero Keisel Jimenez had fun taking a turn on the mic for a singalong, clapalong take of the old salsa classic Manteca. His fellow percussionist Carlos Maldonado fueled several upward trajectories with his boomy cajon while tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta ranged from incisive to balmy to taking a carefree turn on flute.

And the compositions were as wide-ranging as anyone could hope for. There was the shapeshifting, chuffing La Llorona, from one of many of O’Farrill’s ballet suites, scheduled for release on album this winter (if there isn’t lockdowner interference). He drew some laughs when he introduced a restless, lustrous jazz waltz arrangement of the old Scottish air She Moves Through the Fair as a shout-out to his heritage (check the last name for validation).

He explained the matter-of-factly crescendoing Compa’Doug as a portrait of two guys out at night raising hell, although the group took their time with the song’s careful, saturnine development before a rather sober evening rolled into the wee hours. El Sur, a Gabriel Alegria tune, wound out expansively from a Peruvian festejo beat to a hypnotically circular, almost qawwali-ish 6/8 groove with punchy incisions from the horns. And O’Farrill warned that his tune Tanguanco – a mashup of tango and a slinky Cuban rhythm – was dangerously sexy, the percussion section anchoring it with a turbulent undercurrent.

O’Farrill and the octet continue their renewed weekly residency at Birdland every Sunday night at 7 PM; cover s $20.

One of the World’s Mightiest Latin Jazz Orchestras Gets Back to Business at Birdland

When a bunch of oligarchs and their puppets in politics tried to take over the world in 2020, musicians were left out in the cold. In the liner notes to his new album Virtual Birdland, pianist Arturo O’Farrill, longtime leader of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra takes care to mention how people who play music for a living are no less essential than any other workers. Empowered by that knowledge, he kept the band going through a long series of webcasts, possibly the most labor-intensive of all the innumerable online collaborations of the past sixteen months or so. The great news is that the big band’s home base, Birdland, is open again, and the group have resumed the Sunday night residency they were banished from in March of last year. Showtime these days is 7 PM. If you feel like celebrating, it couldn’t hurt to reserve a spot now since these shows are very likely to sell out. Cover is $20; your best deal is a seat at the bar.

Considering that individual parts on the record – streaming at Spotify – were recorded remotely in innumerable different sonic environments, the fact that it sounds as contiguous as it does reflects the herculean work of the engineers involved.

Big trombone fanfares interweave with lushly swirling reeds over a bubbling Punjabi-inflected groove in the cuisine-inspired opening number, Gulab Jamon. O’Farrill takes a cascading, brightly neoromantic solo with Bam Bam Rodriguez’s bass growling minimalistically behind him while the rhythm straightens into an emphatic clave. Tenor saxophonist Jasper Dutz summons a return to a web of triumphant counterpoint and a devious false ending.

Guest Malika Zarra sings her composition Pouvoir, a slinky, brassy Moroccan-flavored tune with solos from trombonist Mariel Bildstein and conguero Keisel Jimenez. This band have always slayed with Arabic and Jewish themes, underscored by their version of trombonist Rafi Malkiel’s brooding Desert, its uneasily undulating chromatics giving way to a serpentine solo by the composer and then a muted, soulful one from lead trumpeter Seneca Black.

With its nocturnal, Dizzy Gillespie-style suspense and bluster, Larry Willis’ Nightfall makes a great segue, trumpeter Rachel Therrien and tenor saxophonist Ivan Renta cutting loose hauntingly between the orchestra’s chromatic gusts. The bandleader spirals elegantly; Jimenez goes deep down the well as the storm hovers.

Guest guitarist Ghazi Faisal Al-Mulaifi sings his methodical, bittersweet ballad Ana Mashoof, adding a starry solo in tandem with O’Farrill before Alejandro Aviles spins in on soprano sax. Alto saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera soars and weaves through a tightly turbulent take of his Samba For Carmen, echoed by O’Farrill’s trumpeter son Adam.

Alafia, by Letieres Leite – the Brazilian Arturo O’Farrill – gets a jubilant, percussion-fueled workout, part elegantly orchestral candomble theme, part feral frevo brass-band romp with a tantalizingly brief, smoky Larry Bustamante baritone sax solo.

O’Farrill first performed Rafael Solano’s En La Oscuridad with his big band legend father Chico O’Farrill alongside the great tenor saxophonist Mario Rivera, so playing this suave, balmy ballad again with Renta, a Rivera protege, brings the song full circle.

They close the album with a couple of salutes to transgression, something the world is rising to embrace like never before. The epic take of Papo Vazquez’s relentlessly anthemic Cimarron first features calm triumph from trombonist Abdulrahman Amer, Aviles turning up the heat on alto, then percussionist Carly Maldonado fueling a charge out. The final number is a towering, cinematic take of Tito Puente’s Para Los Rumberos: Renta, Malkiel, Maldonado, Jimenez and drummer Vince Cherico all get to cut loose. How beautiful it is that we can hear musicians of this caliber take material like this to the next level onstage again.

And if you’re around the East Village on the 29th, O’Farrill is leading a much smaller group at St. Marks Park at 2nd Ave. and 10th St. at half past noon.

Purist, Bluesy Swing From Trombonist Mariel Bildstein

Mariel Bildstein may be best know as the high-voltage lead trombonist in Arturo O’Farrill‘s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, but she’s also a composer and bandleader. Her new album Backbone – streaming at Bandcamp – is a straight-up, swinging, purist mix of tunes from across the ages. Bildstein maintains a remarkable focus and doesn’t waste notes.

The opening number, Horace Silver’s Ecaroh bristles with surreal harmonies, Stacy Dillard taking a couple of bracing solos on soprano sax, pianist Sean Mason bringing in some ragtime and gospel, the bandleader getting wry with the quotebook right off the bat.

Harold Arlen’s The Man That Got Away is a steady swing blues, Bildstein taking a spare, New Orleans-flavored solo as Evan Sherman’s drums drop out and bassist Ben Wolfe strolls along purposefully. A  nocturnal Spanish atmosphere permeates Rosita, from Mason’s biting bolero piano to Dillard’s misty tenor sax; the coy horn harmonies lighten the piece considerably as it goes on, with a jaunty little bass cadenza to cap it off. The Coleman Hawkins version is an obvious precursor.

Monaco follows a similar trajectory from stern intensity toward jubilation on the wings of Bildstein’s no-nonsense solo, handing off to Dillard’s spiraling tenor, Mason adding bluesy simmer. Bildstein looms distantly, then has sly fun with her mute over Wolfe’s slow, considered syncopation in their stripped-down duo version of Mood Indigo. The  group close the album by reinventing The Lamp Is Low as a jaunty cha-cha anchored by guest percussionist Keisel Jimenez’s clave.

Fiercely Relevant, Epic Grandeur From Pianist Arturo O’Farrill’s Mighty Big Band

Pianist Arturo O’Farrill has made a career out of writing witheringly insightful, relevant, politically fearlesss jazz. His brilliantly symphonic 2014 album The Offense of the Drum, with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra addressed issues spanning from the blight of gentrification, to the arrest quotas the New York City police were using at the time to target innocent people of color, to the the slavers in the British colonies who outlawed music in an attempt to keep kidnapped Africans in submission. At a moment where band performances are illegal in New York, there’s never been a more appropriate time for a new record from this mighty crew. Their latest one, Four Questions – streaming at Spotify – Is O’Farrill’s most musically ambitious and classically-oriented album in a career full of taking chances.

The centerpiece is the title suite, featuring firebrand theorist, author and hip-hop artist Cornel West. The stairstepping brass intro is a lot closer to John Zorn than, say, Machito; the bluster and slink afterward alludes to the Middle East, among many shifting idioms, with triumphant call-and-response riffage throughout the ensemble. This isn’t just a backing track for West’s characteristically polymath broadside, which draws from W.E.B. DuBois’ thoughts on building community to combat repression from all sides. In sixteen minutes plus, West makes the connection between DuBois’ vision of a society based on compassion and Jane Austen’s concept of “constancy,” rails against Wall Street scammers who go unpunished and sends fervent shouts out to a long legacy of American artists of color whose work and philosophy in the face of murderous tyranny have never been more relevant than they are now. “Folks can’t ride your back unless it’s bent,” he reminds. Along the way, O’Farrill brings the music down to a streetcorner descarga, throws in a little jaunty ragtime, a rustic oldtime gospel trumpet interlude, and references from James P. Johnson to Geri Allen.

The album’s second suite is A Still, Small Voice, O’Farrill’s reflection on the 2008 financial collapse engineered by the Bush regime and Goldman Sachs to take the profits private and the losses public (and potentially cripple the incoming Obama administration). A forlorn trumpet solo opens the first movement, Elijah – 1 Kings 19:13. A choir of disembodied voices conducted by Jana Ballard coalesces, punctuated by orchestral swells, portentous percussion and a cantering qawaali-flavored rhythm.

Uneasy close harmonies from the choir fuel the fleeting second movement, Amidst the Fire and Whirlwind. The third, aptly titled Cacophonous has a rising, terrorized counterpoint anchored by the bandleader’s eerie boogie-woogie lefthand, interrupted by a suspiciously blithe soprano sax solo. The orchestra and choir work ethereal chromatic descents over a tense pulse in the concluding title movement, eventually ceding to a somberly catchy sway and a calm, gospel-infused outro. O’Farrill always likes to leave a window for hope to get in.

Not everything here is this heavy. The opening track, Baby Jack, is essentially a soprano sax concerto. It’s a playful, telling portrait of a very mercurial infant, complete with peevish trombones, moments of wonderous calm contrasting with unexpected, lush sagacity: this is one precocious child!

Jazz Twins has a sweeping, Darcy James Argue-ish bittersweetness and waves of counterpoint. O’Farrill takes a rippling solo, followed by gritty, clustering tenor sax and soaring trumpet over more of that Punjabi-inflected rhythm. And Clump, Unclump, a circling study in divergence, convergence and triumph over an evil system, manages to be both the album’s most avant garde and yet most traditionally postbop number.

Ambitious, Counterintuitive Tunefulness from Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days

Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill didn’t exactly burst onto the Manhattan scene – he eased into it, mentored by his father, the brilliant pianist/composer/activist Arturo O’Farrill. The trumpeter’s big splash was when Vijay Iyer enlisted him while barely out of his teens. His technique is astonishing, from the top to the bottom of his register, and with amazing subtlety for someone with such fearsome chops. He’s also a very soulful and playful composer, which takes some people by surprise, which it shouldn’t. Depth isn’t a quality that necessarily comes with age. Think about it: were you stupid when you were in your early twenties? If you’re reading this, probably not.

Adam O’Farrill’s second album with his chordless quartet, Stranger Days – with Chad Lefkowitz-Brown on tenor sax, Walter Stinson on bass and similarly brilliant older brother Zack on drums – is titled El Maquech. It’s a step forward for an already talented bandleader, who’s bringing his crew to the album release show at 55 Bar tomorrow night, June 13 at 10 PM. Much as the club is a rare remaining fortress of (very) oldschool West Village cool, this is the kind of show that really ought to happen at, say, Lincoln Center. If the late, great Lorraine Gordon was still with us, she unquestionably would have given this guy a week at the Vanguard.

The album’s opening number, Siiva Moiiva – which you can hear on Bandcamp along with the rest of the tracks – is a reinvented Mexican folk tune, both a showcase for shivery, allusively Arabic extended technique and some jubilant New Orleans rhythms, veering back and forth between the two. Stinson’s wryly syncopated groove underscores horn harmonies that shift from carefree to defiantly haggard in Verboten Chant, inspired by the dilemma faced by Japanese monks who were prohibited from chanting.

The title cut – named after a Mexican beetle depicted in ancient Mayan jewelry – is a darkly blazing, gorgeous New Orleans/bolero mashup, trumpet soaring, sax smoking, drums adding innumerable colorful textures and cadenzas. Erroneous Love – based on Thelonious Monk’s Eronel – blends Rudresh Mahanthappa-inspired bhangra riffage balanced by Lefkowitz-Brown’s tongue-in-cheek, Jon Iragabon-ish microtones.

LIkewise, Shall We (If You Really Must Insist) is a phostbop bhangra fanfare, done as a a brightly stripped-down trumpet-and-drums duo. Irving Berlin’s Get Thee Behind Me Satan – originally a lushly orchestrated Ella Fitzgerald vehicle from the trumpeter’s favorite film, The Master – gets reinvented as an expansively bittersweet, semi-rubato solo piece.

Henry Ford Hospital – inspired by the Frida Kahlo painting – shifts between strolling and frantic meters, matched by the horns’ pounces and shrieks. Pointilllistic cymbals contrast with foghorn harmonies as the album’s final cut, Gabriel Garzon-Montano’s Pour Maman, gets underway, edging between astigmatic Krzysztof Komeda-esque noir and mariachi majesty. Many flavors to savor here.

Dafnis Prieto Brings His Lush, Gorgeous Latin Big Band Sounds to the Jazz Standard Next Month

Over the course of his career, drummer Dafnis Prieto has immersed himself in an enormous number of influences. So it’s no surprise that the new album by his explosive Big Band, Back to the Sunset – streaming at Spotify – is a salute to every latin jazz artist he’s drawn inspiration from, sometimes three composers in a single song! That mammoth ambition pays mighty dividends throughout the album’s nine epic tracks. Prieto’s compositions are very democratic, with tons of animated call-and-response and counterpoint, and everybody in the band gets time in the spotlight. This seventeen-piece crew are playing a short stand at the Jazz Standard June 6-10, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $30.

Trumpeter Brian Lynch takes centerstage on and off, with and without a mute, in the blazing opening number, Una Vez Más. Pianist Manuel Valera tumbles and then delivers a contrastingly elegant solo; the rest of the trumpet line (Mike Rodríguez, Nathan Eklund, Alex Sipiagin and Josh Deutsch) build a conflagration over a slinky Afro-Cuban groove; the band storm up to a catchy four-chord riff and a blast of a coda. Prieto dedicates all this to Lynch, along with Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri.

Is The Sooner the Better a mashup of bossa nova and Fort Apache flavor, since it’s a shout-out to Jerry Gonzalez and Egberto GIsmonti? With its rising exchanges throughout the band and relentlessly suspenseful pulse, it’s closer to the Brazilian composer’s most broodingly cinematic work. Baritone saxophonist Chris Cheek gets a tantalizingly brief, gruff solo, tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum keeps it dark but gets more expansive, then piano and brass carry it away,

Cheek takes a wryly jovial solo to open Out of the Bone, whidh begins as a stunning, slashing mashup of Ethiopiques and Afro-Cuban styles. Massed brass carries the tune into more symphonic territory, then a droll, chattering interlude, and finally a round of trombones: Tim Albright, Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik and Jeff Nelson.

Interestingly, the album’s gorgeously lingering, lavish title track is dedicated to Andrew Hill and Henry Threadgill, who takes a wryly spacious, peek-a-boo cameo on alto sax. The album’s longest number, Danzonish Potpourri, shifts suddenly from bluesy gravitas, to lush sweep, hushed piano-based glimmer and then a towering bolero spiced with shivery horn accents. How do they end this beast of a tune? With a coy Apfelbaum melodica solo.

Guest altoist Steve Coleman bubbles brightly, then hands off to trumpeter Nathan Eklund in Song for Chico, a cheery Veracruz-flavored number, much of which sounds like a long, joyous outro. Individual voices leap out from every corner of the sonic picture in the triumphantly shuffling Prelude Para Rosa, which like so many other tracks here morphs unexpectedly, in this case to a moody cha-cha with a spiraling Román Filiú alto sax solo.

The no-nonsense, bustling Two For One has similarly vast scattershot voicings, a smoky Apfelbaum solo followed by Valera’s scrambling attack and then a wry wind-down from Prieto and multi-percussionist Roberto Quintero. The album’s final number is the aptly titled The Triumphant Journey, dedicated to Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, with fiery cascades of Ethiopian riffage and a sudden shift to trumpet-fueled clave.

What a blast this album must have been to make, for a lineup that also includes trumpeters Mike Rodríguez, Alex Sipiagin and Josh Deutsch; alto saxophonist Michael Thomas and bassist Ricky Rodríguez.

A Barbes Residency This Month by Intense Jazz Passengers Leader Roy Nathanson

When you think of solo saxophone, do you get shadowy visions of some guy leaning against a brick wall, playing desolate, mournful phrases that linger in the mist somewhere on upper Broadway in the wee hours? Or is that just a personal observation?

Roy Nathanson played something like that late in a very rare solo show at NYU this past spring, but he also played a lot of much more kinetic material, in a spellbinding display of extended technique. It’s not likely that the Jazz Passengers bandleader and onetime Lounge Lizard will be playing much if any solo material during his ongoing Sunday evening 5 PM Barbes residency this month, but it’s possible. That’s what famous touring artists like Nathanson do here: work up new material and push the envelope outside of what pricy jazz clubs around the world expect from them.

For example, in the summer of 2016 Nathanson played a one-off Barbes duo show with pianist Arturo O’Farrill that was a feral blast of fun, a mix of Carla Bley-esque wildness and some of the (increasingly brooding) jazz poetry that’s helped raise Nathanson’s standing as a connoisseur of New York noir. The NYU show was a showcase for what a ferociously interesting and dauntingly virtuosic player he is. The Jazz Passengers are a song band with the kind of interplay that comes from three decades worth of gigs, but Nathanson doesn’t get enough props for his technique.

Alternating between alto, soprano and baritone sax, he switched reeds in and out of his various axes, explaining his fascination with getting just the right amount of smoke or nebulosity or brightness depending on what the song calls for. The evening’s most spectacular moment was when he played alto and soprano at the same time – with equal parts squall and melody. It was also very cool to hear him play baritone: a lot of alto players double on baritone to get more gigs, but Nathanson made it clear that he was just as much at home in the growly lows as the upper midrange where he’s usually found.

The material was mostly new and unrecorded, along with the first number Nathanson ever wrote – or was at least comfortable enough with to bring to the stage. There was anger, and rigor and intensity in that one – if memory serves right, he wrote it in the wake of his brother’s death. Many of the new compositions explored Jewish themes, although the echoes of both Eastern European Jewish folk music and liturgical melodies were distant and allusive. Nathanson also treated the gathering to some poetry: the most memorable piece pondered what the hell we’re going to do and where everybody’s going to go until the real estate bubble finally bursts and this endless blitzkrieg of gentrification collapses with it. Obviously, Nathanson said all that far more imagistically and succinctly. You might get some of that at Barbes this month.

The Alan Ferber Nonet Bring Their Dynamic, Intense Large Ensemble Sound to the Flatiron District

Considering how time-consuming it is just to keep a big band together and playing, it’s amazing how the likes of Arturo O’Farrill and Maria Schneider manage to do that and keep coming up with fresh and interesting material for their large ensembles, year after year. Count trombonist/composer Alan Ferber among that dedicated elite. His latest album, Roots & Transitions is a suite for an only slightly smaller ensemble, his long-running Nonet with trumpeters Scott Wendholt and Shane Endsley, alto saxophonist Jon Gordon, tenor saxophonist John Ellis, bass clarinetist Charles Pillow, guitarist Nate Radley, pianist Bryn Roberts, bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Mark Ferber. The album hasn’t hit the web yet, but there are a trio of tracks up at Sunnyside Records’ site. The band also have a weekend stand coming up this Friday and Saturday night, May 13 and 14 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $22.

The composer bases the suite on a series of variations on a cleverly rhythmic cell-like theme. Ferber’s music tends toward the lustrous and enveloping, and this is no exception. It’s no surprise that his charts give the material might and majesty that seems like it’s being played by a considerably larger group. Ferber’s moody solo trombone opens the first track, Quiet Confidence, a slowly swaying ballad that Roberts’ methodical, slowly spiraling solo takes into brighter territory over a cymbal-fueled scan of the perimeter, setting up the bandleader to take it up on an ebullient upward climb before bringing it full circle. The low, lustrous shifting low brass sheets of the miniature Hourglass segue into the misterioso trombone/guitar intro of Clocks, an alterered fanfare over a tense pulse building to a powerfully dark modal crescendo, Gordon’s nimbly bluesy phrasing throwing some light into the shadows, which Radley then shreds and scatters. It’s the most noirish piece here.

Wayfarer is an amiably buoyant tune, part retro, part Jim McNeely newschool swing with a judiciously low-key Ellis solo at the center. That tricky three-on-four feel really makes itself present throughout Flow, reflecting the tuneful, nonchalant drive of the suite’s opening cut, the bandleader’s imposing trombone contrasting with Radley’s blithe upward flights. And then its Morricone-esque ending brings back the shadowy intensity.

Perspective offers a warmly melodic take on lustrous teens pastoral jazz, a simple, gently modal piano riff underpinning its amiably rustic, syncopated stroll, Ellis adding his usual melodicism when his turn comes up. Echo Calling brings back the distant ominous feel: listen closely and you’ll discover a disquiting fugue underneath. The album winds up with the chatteringly cheerful barnburner Cycles and its gritty, pinpoint-precise staccato phrasing. Much as it’s got one of Ferber’s usual imaginative charts and plenty of high-voltage playing from everybody, it seems tacked on as as way to close this otherwise often gorgeously uneasy collection on an upbeat note. Maybe when the Ferber box set comes out sometime around 2030 (by then, box sets will probably be all vinyl, or who knows, organic vinyl), he can use it as an opening cut.

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.

The Puppeteers Take Their Excitement Uptown

You could call the Puppeteers a latin jazz band, but they’re a lot more than that. Pianist Arturo O’Farrill brings everything he does in the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (who have a phenomenal new album, The Offense of the Drum, coming out): Afro-Cuban grooves, symphonic gravitas and a biting edge that sometimes slinks off into noir. Vibraphonist Bill Ware also brings some of the noir he does so memorably in the Jazz Passengers, but his duels with O’Farrill on the band’s debut album make it one of the most flat-out exciting jazz albums released in the past several months. Thursday night at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, the two were wise to put bassist Alex Blake out front: with his terse but frenetically hammering solos on both bass and bass guitar along with his nonchalantly animated scatting, he was a big hit with the crowd. And he did all that sitting down for practically the whole show. With a fullsize bass, to call that a stretch is no joke, but Blake reached way up for the low notes – surreal, huh? – and made it look effortless.

Drummer Jaime Affoumado played mostly with brushes, deftly shifting from one Spanish Caribbean beat to another and then to straight-up funk from time to time. His purposeful drive kept one of the early numbers from drifting into Mad Men soundtrack territory. During a solo later on, he wryly impersonated a salsa percussion section, first with timbale riffage on the bell of the ride cymbal, then tapping out a bomba beat on the snare.

This gig was more about friendly camaraderie and exploration than megawatt solos. O’Farrill brought an unexpected and very effective wariness to a tempo-shifting, dynamic take of Resolutions, Ware and then Blake maintaining the mood throughout expansive solos. Ware’s jazz waltz Peaceful Moment gave the vibraphonist a chance go to deep into lushly lingering, nocturnal Milt Jackson territory before picking up the pace. Later the band looked back to Coltrane for a take of Soul Eyes that began with a resonant tenderness and then went on a methodical trajectory upward.

On this particular night, the version of Ware’s Bio Diesel was a lot more warmly straight-up and funky than the surrealistically bubbly album track – Ware revealed that he’d written it for his girlfriend, who works in alternative energy. Papo Vasquez’s Not Now Right Now got the night’s most acerbic, hard-hitting crescendos from both O’Farrill and Ware, but the night’s most memorable number, by O’Farrill, was arguably its most pensive one. Opening with a poignant neoromantic glimmer, the pianist then brought his trumpeter son Adam up to contribute an almost minimalistically wired solo, carefully and methodically crafting an uneasy mood that the rest of the band kept close to the vest and never deviated from.