Mondays with Morgan: Darcy James Argue (new album ‘Dynamic Maximum Tension’)

Mondays With Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with composer, arranger and big band leader Darcy James Argue about his new album with his long-running ensemble Secret Society, Dynamic Maximum Tension — their Nonesuch Records debut.

Links (*) to purchase the album and Argue’s website can be found at the bottom of this article.

Darcy James Argue at the Montreal Biosphere. Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein

For Darcy James Argue, picking a favorite solo is like picking a favorite child.

As Argue surveys his new album, Dynamic Maximum Tension, he’s awestruck by baritone saxophonist Carl Maraghi on “Dymaxion” and his Bob Brookmeyer tribute “Wingèd Beasts.” Ditto trumpeter Ingrid Jensen on “Mae West: Advice” and “Your Enemies Are Asleep.”

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The list goes on: alto saxophonist Rob Wilkerson on “Codebreaker,” soprano saxophonist Dave Pietro on “Ebonite,” Nadje Noordhuis — playing her late. highly regarded teacher Laurie Frink’s trumpet — on “All In.” Regarding each of these showings, Argue is outwardly thrilled.

“Someone once told me Secret Society isn’t really a blowing band,” Argue tells LondonJazz News via Zoom, with a side eye and a chuckle. “Well, listen to this record, then, if you don’t think so!”

“Blowing” applies beyond the improvisatory term. On Dynamic Maximum Tension, Argue’s ideas gust forth with uttermost velocity — equal to the cultural information he inhaled.

Dynamic Maximum Tension contains a tremendous amount of 20th century lore; Argue has called the tunes “portraits” of world-benders of yore. Chief among them are R. Buckminster Fuller (whose “Dymaxion” concept named the album), Mae West, and Alan Turing.

He also wrote immersive homages to the Band’s Levon Helm (“Last Waltz for Levon”) — and, across nearly 35 minutes, Duke Ellington (“Tensile Curves,” an answer to “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”). “Single-Cell Jitterbug” is a nod to Fuller and Cab Calloway, based on the historically plausible notion of the former jitterbugging to the latter at the Savoy Ballroom.

Dynamic Maximum Tension is Secret Society’s first album in seven years. The process of orchestrating an ambitious song cycle by vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant — who appears on “Mae West: Advice” — was one reason for the interregnum; the pandemic was another.

But Dynamic Maximum Tension was worth the wait. Despite its heady volume of historical information, it’s kinetic, gripping and modern — with a bounty of harmonic richness to boot.

Read on for an interview with Argue about the moving parts of Dynamic Maximum Tension — as well as photos from Secret Society’s recent album launch at the Jazz Gallery in Manhattan.

Darcy James Argue directing Secret Society at the Jazz Gallery. Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

LJN: This is the first Secret Society album in seven years. How would you characterize that span, from personal and artistic standpoints?

DJA: Well, as you might imagine, it wasn’t supposed to be seven years. Originally, we were going to record this during the summer of 2020 — and we all know what happened that spring.

Following Real Enemies, my next big project was with Cécile McLorin Salvant, orchestrating her Ogresse song cycle, which premiered in 2018. That was a very big project that took up quite a lot of my time, working with Cécile on those arrangements and really dialing those in. That was my focus for after Real Enemies was out there in the world. 

I was really excited to record again with Secret Society in the summer of 2020, and to go out and tour and bring all this music to everybody. It was a couple of years before we could finally get back into the recording studio with an 18-piece band.

LJN: What should the people know about this current incarnation of Secret Society? New York’s large ensemble scene tends to have a high turnover rate. Was there a lot of that for you?

DJA: There is not. You’ll hear almost everybody returning from our previous album.

We did have a couple of additions in two trumpet players. One is the great Liesl Whitaker, who’s playing second trumpet on this, and Brandon Lee, who came in to solo on “Tensile Curves” — his playing on that track is just phenomenal — and played the last two days of our recording session.

We’re really happy to welcome both of those brand new co-conspirators. But everybody else has been a Secret Society stalwart, since at least Real Enemies, if not earlier.

Having that stability of personnel has been very helpful for the band over the years because the music’s really hard! It takes a lot of time to get comfortable with it, learn to play it, and really get off of the page and inject some life and breath into it. Having this long-term family of musicians is really personally inspiring to me.

LJN: Back to Cécile, who guests on “Mae West: Advice.” You had mentioned in press materials that you wanted to connect to a more optimistic time, by engaging with figures like Buckminster Fuller, Alan Turing and Mae West. As Cécile is pure quantum promise, I’m sure she fit like a glove.

DJA: I wanted to write something to feature Cécile, something that people could actually hear! Because with Ogresse, it’s going to be a while, if you don’t get to hear it live. Cécile is working on turning the production into an animated film, and it’s going to be a few years before the film is finished.

Just to give people a little taste of our collaboration, I wanted to write something for her to sing with Secret Society. Ogresse is all of Cécile’s music, which I arranged, so now we’re sort of swapping roles; I get to write something for Cécile to sing.

When I first started to work on Ogresse, I was at this artist residence in Italy, where I met this incredible poet, Paisley Reckdal. I thought, Let’s look through some of Paisley’s poems and see if there’s something that could work as a piece of music.

I found this series of incredible sonnets dedicated to Mae West. I thought, oh, that’s kind of interesting. And when I saw “Mae West: Advice,” it was just perfect.

It had a great rhyme scheme; it had incredibly witty wordplay. The last line of the sonnet is, “Don’t be a noodle: be cool and collect.” That’s a Mae West quote, and it also forms the available pool of letters for every word; the rest of the poem uses only the letters in that phrase. So, it’s a really virtuosic poem — a really incredible bit of construction. When I read it, I thought: oh, Cécile is going to love this. So I sent it to her — and I was right, she did love it!

Mae West actually gave the Duke Ellington Orchestra their feature film debut: the Ellington band appears as the house band in her [1934] film Belle of the Nineties.

At Mae’s insistence, the studio wanted to use white actors miming. Mae was like, “No, we’re going to have the Duke Ellington band on screen.” And one of the songs from that film is the standard “My Old Flame”; that song made its debut in Belle of the Nineties.

I was thinking about the harmonic language of songs like “My Old Flame,” and trying to write something that sounded like it could have been written in that era. I wrote and arranged it, and figured out a way to treat it as if I was taking any other standard, arranging it for the present day, and arranging it for Cécile.

LJN: “Tensile Curves” is a response to Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Can you talk about that dialogue?

DJA: “Tensile Curves” was co-commissioned by the Vancouver-based Hard Rubber Orchestra and the Newport Jazz Festival. When you think of Newport, you think of Duke Ellington, you think of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” the famous 1956 performance with the 27 choruses by Paul Gonsalves — sending the crowd into pure pandemonium, and all of that.

As famous as that story is, I feel like the 1937 composition itself is one of the most outstanding things I’ve ever heard, and really under-recognized as one of Duke’s greatest masterpieces.

The “Diminuendo” section is this wild ride full of misdirection and key changes and shifting expectations, playing games with the form. You think you’re going to go down this route, then Duke swerves at the last minute. All these twists and turns in two and a half minutes of music!

So it’s like, OK, well, how can I take the ideas behind “Diminuendo in Blue” and extend them? There’s this great arch formed by these five different key centers that Duke uses over the course of the tune, so I preserve that.

But I tried to diminuendo for 30 minutes, the brass section would all just expire after about five minutes of playing fortissimo. So, instead of starting loud and getting gradually softer, what I hit on for a longer piece was: instead of trying to do it with volume, what if I tried to do it with tempo?

Like, what does it feel like to start at the uptempo swing of “Diminuendo in Blue,” and every time we change keys, we metrically modulate to progressively slower and slower tempos? Is there a way to make that exciting?

Because “Diminuendo in Blue” gets softer, it actually gets more exciting, until you get down to the end of it and it pivots into the crescendo. It’s really a remarkable bit of sleight of hand and structural genius from Duke!

So, it’s like, all right, maybe I can do something similar — and pay tribute to that gesture through gradually slower tempos, which is what I ended up doing.

LJN: One final shout out — as per “Last Waltz for Levon,” what do you learn from a musical octopus like Levon Helm?

DJA: I wrote that piece shortly after Levon died. It’s funny, it didn’t start out as a tribute to Levon. I was just working with this simple, very folkloric melody, and I started to hear a country waltz behind it.

Then, it felt like it might make sense for Levon. Especially since, on the film The Last Waltz, there aren’t a lot of tunes in 3/4 on it! It was like, all right, let’s go with that.

Levon is every jazz musician’s favorite rock drummer. He just has that really beautiful wide-open pocket, and just a big, round, open feel. 

Robbie Robertson recently passed, and Robbie’s songwriting is also really important to this piece. There are quotations from the song that Robbie wrote specifically for Levon, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” 

Levon famously had a massive falling out with Robbie after The Band broke up. So I guess part of it is just me trying to imagine a musical reconciliation between these two famously antagonistic figures.

The trombones and trumpets of Secret Society. Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein

LINKS: (*) Purchase Dynamic Maximum Tension(*)
Darcy James Argue’s website

Artist page at Nonesuch Records

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