If there’s one thing I find reassurance in within the midst of a depressing world, it’s the nerdery of Darcy James Argue. The man can go in hard about coffee, about bagels, about politics, about the music industry, about every nut and bolt necessary to compose his music. On his latest release with his big band, Secret Society, out now on New Amsterdam Records called Real Enemies, Argue applies his nerdery to conspiracy theories.
Argue, in helming a big band in the 21st century, has been acutely aware of expressing big ideas. He understands parts big and small, collaboration, physicality and concepts. His first album branded this group as steampunk and it clanked and soared and excited. His second told a fanciful tale of the doomed tallest tower in the world in built Brooklyn with a doomed carousel on top with illustration by Danijel Zezelj. In both of these works, Argue composed and arranged for an 18-piece big band, allowing for jazz improvisation in innovative ways that make such tight work surprise and highlight the talents of the individuals involved, told narratives and established atmosphere over the course of full collections of songs that still worked well as individual units, presented these works with impeccable, witty showmanship. If he were a television showrunner, he’d totally be Vince Gilligan. Hell, if he ever wanted to change things up entirely, it would be interesting to see what a limited series from DJA would look like.
When a phrase rears its head more than a handful of times, it steps up from a quote to a motif, to a theme. I’m usually one for a good callback but this is a celebration of them. It’s worth noting that this was originally part of a multimedia performance co-created by Argue with writer/director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini involving numerous screens projecting the nefariousness of our past– COINTELPRO, CIA-Contra, the Illuminati, the PATRIOT Act, NSA surveillance, aliens, you name it. This is the score of the story of everything out there, a well-composed explanation of control. Some of it is real, some of it is not (probably, most likely, hopefully?), but as the inspiration for a sweeping work, it’s perfect. The concepts of control and interconnectivity inconspicuously entangled in society are interesting , but perfect, to explore in music when divorced from its visual medium. However, assorted samples of speeches from various politicians, speaking of our safety but always with the understanding that there’s more to it than that, cement the points Argue is making, as much punctuation as they are footnotes. The musical phrases that appear repeatedly highlight intention and interconnectivity. Such crafting truly feels like art.
And the music’s great, too. Guitarist Sebastian Noelle impresses in this group as usual, flying with restraint, accenting threads. Jon Wikan’s percussion is always crisp. Adam Birnbaum has a gentle touch on the keys, clear on the piano but even clearer on electric piano and synths. Everyone in this ensemble is impeccable and all have their opportunity to express themselves as the jazz players they are, and even with composition this tight, there’s always a sense that each player has their place and they are making the best and most appropriate use of it instead of everyone merely waiting for their turn. These are top notch musicians under a bandleader with the mental capacity to entertainingly multitask– everyone rightfully steps up to the task.
There’s something about James Urbanik’s voice. There are plenty of clips throughout the album from folks who have shaped the globe but it’s Urbanik’s narration near the close of the album, stating the thesis, calling our reality into question as if the conspiracy theorists out there have it all together more than we think, that feels so akin to Rod Serling, indicating a sense of foreboding that whatever chance of escaping this preordained fate is already too late. Urbanik, too, is one of the detailed parts Argue has put together convey those big ideas well.
Many times in the jazz community, there seems a single minded sense on the creation of art in a single medium. There is of course the present day fear of branding, the peril of folks who make music to have the burden of the music being described as jazz, but there is still the notion that these are people who together make music, an auditory artform. However, Argue has always seemed interested in something more. Call it a survival tactic of being a musician who has the gumption to write for and require for creative expression the effort and scheduling of dozens of people or call it the work of a particular musician who is a huge nerd who gets totally into the stuff he sees in the world around him and this is part of the organization of all that stuff in all their minute details. Such is the creative output of DJA.
Real Enemies, the new album from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, is out now on New Amsterdam Records.
Dave Pietro – piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute, soprano sax, alto sax
Rob Wilkerson – flute, clarinet, soprano sax, alto sax
Sam Sadigursky – E♭ clarinet, B♭ clarinet, A clarinet, tenor sax
John Ellis – clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor sax
Carl Maraghi – clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone
Seneca Black – trumpet, flugelhorn
Jonathan Powell – trumpet, flugelhorn
Matt Holman – trumpet, flugelhorn
Nadje Noordhuis – trumpet, flugelhorn
Ingrid Jensen – trumpet, flugelhorn
Mike Fahie – trombone
Ryan Keberle – trombone
Jacob Garchik – trombone, tuba
Jennifer Wharton – bass trombone, tuba
Sebastian Noelle – acoustic & electric guitar
Adam Birnbaum – acoustic & electric piano, FM synth
Matt Clohesy – contrabass & electric bass, bass synth
Jon Wikan – drum set, cajón, misc. percussion
James Urbaniak – narrator on “Who Do You Trust?” and “You Are Here” reprise
Darcy James Argue – composer, conductor
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.