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London Jazz Festival Review (16) D’Arcy James Argue and Secret Society

Secret Society, dir. D’Arcy James Argue
(Cafe Oto, part of London Jazz Festival, November 18th 2010)

The German writer Heinrich von Kleist wrote in a letter in 1801.
“Big emotions show the strength and the depth of the soul. Where the wind ruffles the sea only in passing, the sea is shallow, but where it piles up the waves, the sea is deep.”

The music of 35-year old, Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based composer and bandleader Darcy James Argue has depth, piles up those big emotions, and leaves a very strong impression.

One example. Argue’s piece “Habeas Corpus” has a powerful back story. Canadian Citizen Maher Arar was seized at JFK in New York, imprisoned, tortured in Syria (Argue describes it graphically). And then found to be totally innocent. It’s a very dark score. Descending scales – the path down to a dungeon?- and then as clear a representation of intensifying pain as you will hear in music, ending with elegaic calm, and some poetic trombone playing from James Hirschfeld.

For the past five years Argue has led and directed a big band, Secret Society, which made its UK debut at Cafe Oto last night. The performance fulfilled every bit of the promise carried by the buzz which has gone ahead of it, and some. Jazz on 3 will be broadcasting on December 13th, and that will definitely be worth checking out. I hope that the errant police siren at the end of Phobos, something authentic and live from the mean streets of E8, gets left in.

Points of reference might be Mingus or Maria Schneider (who has mentored Argue). This is music of strength and guts. It’s not relevant here, but it reminded me how utterly limp, insipid and self-referential much contemporary classical music can be.

Argue’s compositions are intricate. There are tricky time signatures – “Induction Effect” was perhaps the tricksiest, but that was a deliberate gag. The pieces are through-composed – I spotted only one “open” section . Occasionally it goes into harmonic wanderings – the central solo of Phobos, a tenor saxophone solo brilliantly taken by Mark Small, was a case in point. Complex the music might be, but not only do the emotions come through, there is also beat which is easy to respond and be drawn in to. An audience of all ages around me, a very attractive crowd, was both rapt with attention , and physically engaged in the music.

The way Argue creates the bigger emotions is with the use of a very broad palette of different sounds. The brass have a panoply of mutes. Particularly good use was made of the possibilities of the Cajon drum by the fine Jon Wikan. But Argue also writes several kinds of insistent, ostinato backing figures, often for large numbers of players. So the challenge for the band is to balance. And that’s where all the time taken, the early belief in this musicand the sticking-with-it, long involvement by a band with stable personnel really shows. As one band member told me, it has taken time to really get on top of these pieces, but “we can now really play them.”

And can I have answers below in the comments to two questions please:

(1) Oh Canada. What is it about Canadian expats writing music of real weight and significance for big band? Kenny Wheeler, D’Arcy James Argue. Surely there has to be a pattern here.

(2) Could the band’s fine alto saxophonist Erica- superbly featured on Osidian Flow, a wonderful delicate chart based on a delicious asymmetric 9/8 – possibly be descended from Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), quoted above?

Secret Society’s visit to London was enabled by a grant from the Baltimore-based Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation

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