CD Review: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Brooklyn Babylon

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Brooklyn Babylon
(New Amsterdam Records. CD Review by John Walters)

Darcy James Argue’s latest album is a rich, multilayered masterpiece of large-forces composition. The 53-minute Brooklyn Babylon is a grand project that never falters over its seventeen tracks, employing a multitude of big band orchestral colours and compositional devices that draw upon many possible forerunners from the past century and a half while never sounding like retro pastiche. It’s fun to play ‘spot the influence’ with Argue’s music, knowing that he will always transform semi-familiar rhythms, textures, chords and riffs into something entirely personal.

The structure is of eight pieces separated by seven interludes, framed by a jaunty Prologue and a magisterial Epilogue. The interludes are shorter, often using smaller, more unusual forces, while the main pieces follow a narrative created by Argue’s talented collaborator Danijel Zezelj, who also contributes live painting and animations to its live incarnation, which was premièred at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival in 2011. According to the brief liner notes, the full multimedia experience describes the construction of an immense tower in the ‘teeming metropolis of a future Brooklyn.’

On the CD, Zezelj’s visuals are limited to a handful of forthright monochrome sketches, including a brutal hook and wrecking ball against the Brooklyn Bridge, but they clearly make an important contribution to Brooklyn Babylon’s mood and structure. Some pieces change with initially bewildering speed, carelessly picking up and abandoning melodic and rhythmic threads, while the band, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society switches faultlessly between marching-band pomp, funk-driven fusion, swollen eruptions of brass-laden emotion and many other challenging, thrilling personae.

Fortunately this fragmented structure, displayed at its most extreme in Grand Opening (track 14) and Coney Island (track 16), plays to Argue’s strengths. What in lesser hands might have become twiddly postmodern bricolage comes across like a tightly edited, well argued documentary, in which each segment builds up evidence that leads listeners to an inevitable, satisfying, transformational conclusion – the wonderfully sublime ‘Epilogue’.

Despite its length, there are few wasted moments in Brooklyn Babylon, no aimless water-treading – it’s packed with music and musicality. Every component of the suite is place while sounding loose-limbed and liberating – something that few big bands achieve without an expensive rehearsal schedule or a long tour. Individual improvisers – all outstanding – flow in and out of Argue’s structures without any detectable restraint, yet never outstay their welcome. The rhythm section – Sebastian Noelle (guitar), Gordon Webster (keys), Matt Clohesy (basses) and Jon Wikan (drums and percussion) has a vast library of rhythms at its disposal.

Brooklyn Babylon demonstrates Argue’s audacity right from the start – the Prologue sounds like an exceptionally tuneful La Banda-like street band who run nonchalantly through all the suite’s main themes with Webster’s deliberately gauche melodica over Wikan’s busy cajón.

We don’t enter familiar Secret Society territory until ‘The Neighbourhood’ (track 2), driven along by ostinato piano, a stirring tenor sax theme and shouting brass. This is eventually tempered by a contrasting, restrained section in three-four with a poignant clarinet refrain before crashing back into the first groove with Noelle’s guitar power chords and some exultant (almost Mike Gibbs-like) ensemble writing that quickly subsides into sensitive woodwind. ‘An Invitation’ (track 4) builds slowly over hocketing part-writing (with possible nods to Steve Reich, John Adams and Louis Andriessen) and gorgeous, thoroughly Argue-like textures for low brass.

‘The Tallest Tower in the World’ (track 6) has a repetitive, slow, nine-beat sequence that worms its way into your brain, only to collapse into delicate woodwind and muted brass writing before heading back into bombast. At this point, the unprepared listener might feel they’ve heard everything that Argue has to throw at them, but there’s far more, from the alternately tense and raucous fusion of ‘Construction + Destruction’ (track 8) to the magnificent ‘Builders’ (track 10) in which Ingrid Jensen plays an exultant trumpet solo that deserves a Grammy all its own. Jensen’s complete immersion in the piece, and her obvious delight in the timbre of the electronically processed sound reminded me of Ian Carr at his exuberant best.

Few people write as well for trombones as Argue, and Brooklyn Babylon is full of great trombone moments, from James Hirschfield’s solo in the gloriously eventful, cajón-led ‘Missing Parts’ (track 12) to Ryan Kerbele’s spirited blast in ‘Interlude #1 Infuse’, which Argue explains is ‘inspired by a Don Ellis groove’. It’s also good to hear the woodwind used in such an unapologetically contemporary manner, and Sam Sadigursky reinvents the clarinet for the 21st century big band in the almost hysterical coda to ‘Builders’.

Brooklyn Babylon is exceptionally well recorded for a big band album – recording and mixing engineer Brian Montgomery has clearly made a big contribution to the integrity of the sound, it sounds as if few short cuts were taken. When things are supposed to sound small, like the fragile wooden flutes in ‘Interlude #2: Enjoin’, they sound tiny. When they have to sound powerful, like the low brass and drums reverberantly hammered out at the end of ‘Construction + Destruction’, they sound like a last-minute warning for the end of time.

With the excellent Infernal Machines (2009), Argue demonstrated that he could create substantial compositions with a loyal band that could invest his themes and structures with drama and energy. Brooklyn Babylon is less like a jazz album and more like a through-composed classical suite, yet it builds on the modern jazz composition traditions and methods explored over the past half century by Gil Evans, George Russell, Don Ellis, Carla Bley, Mike Gibbs, Peter Apfelbaum, Maria Schneider and the jazz composer’s jazz composer, Bob Brookmeyer (with whom Argue studied in the early 2000s). There are echoes of other North American musics, from Sousa and Ives to Barber and Bernstein. What’s possibly conspicuous by its absence is the bravura swinging big band style kept alive by myriad American college bands, and in the JLCO (Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra) established by Wynton Marsalis at another kind of citadel in the centre of Manhattan. It’s not that the Secret Society can’t swing, but they don’t do ‘swing band’.

Recorded at the celebrated Avatar Studios in New York and produced by Argue and Montgomery, the whole album has great warmth – its middle frequencies compare well with the shrillness and hollowness evident in many current recordings. And, given the complexity of the score, the mix achieves a sonic depth of focus that ensures we never miss a crucial detail, whether it’s one of Erica von Kleist’s elliptical piccolo lines or the urgent opening of Jon Wikan’s hi hat. We’re in something of a boom time for big bands, right now, in Europe and in the States, but with Brooklyn Babylon, Darcy James Argue and the Secret Society have set a new standard.

© John L. Walters, June 2013

John L. Walters is an editor, writer and a former musician and record producer.

Categories: miscellaneous

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