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Nobody sets a better context for the challenging yet inviting music of composer and bandleader Darcy James Argue than the man himself. Blogging in 2005—the year he formed Secret Society, his 18-piece "steampunk big band"—Argue suggested to his jazz colleagues, "You don't establish your indie-rock cred by, say, coming out with a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah cover record. You do it by taking whatever you value in that music and making it yours." Four years, hundreds of refreshingly astute posts, and several critically acclaimed Secret Society gigs later, his first album, Infernal Machines, arrives just in time to bring one of the most intriguing cases of artistic foreplay in jazz history to a deeply satisfying resolution.
The big bands of the 1930s and '40s were wind-powered heavy-metal ensembles that whipped ballroom dancers into a frenzy with sophisticated arrangements and high-volume riffage. And while a combination of new amplification technology, economics, and changing tastes led to their transformation into more rarefied vehicles of artistic expression, Argue strives to rejuvenate the form with a sound that's remarkably personal while evoking Gil Evans returning to Cookie Mountain with Steve Reich. He embodies the omnivorous modern music fan: The ruminative conclusion to "Redeye," he explains over the phone from his Carroll Gardens abode, "is kind of a shout-out to the first track on Tortoise's TNT." While growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, Argue listened to Guns N' Roses when he wasn't playing piano to stripped-down Thad Jones–Mel Lewis charts in his junior-high jazz band.
Leading a contemporary big band has to be a Sisyphean struggle at the best of times. "It's never a walk in the park," agrees Argue, who still holds a day job as a music transcriber (at least until some wise institution snags him as a prof). Inspired by Alan Moore's second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic, he borrowed signifiers from the steampunk scene's romantic retrofuturism. The metaphor is apt: As anachronistic as big bands may be, they harbor the potential to unleash surprisingly modern sounds. The first thing you'll hear on Infernal Machines, for example, is the sound of a cajón drum filtered through a delay pedal. "Basically," Argue says, "we were just really trying to fuck with people's ideas of, 'Hey, I thought this was going to be a big-band record!' "
With Infernal Machines (the title echoes a tart John Philip Sousa comment regarding the radio), Argue joins a group of composer-bandleaders—including Maria Schneider, John Hollenbeck, Chris Jentsch, J.C. Sanford, and other disciples of Evans and Bob Brookmeyer—for whom big bands offer big palettes for work that blurs the distinction between jazz and classical. Secret Society's May 8 gig at Galapagos kicks off Undiscovered Islands, a four-week festival devoted to new music by artists on the indie-classical New Amsterdam label. And Argue is a perceptive and plucky enthusiast for those colleagues toiling, often brilliantly, in the big-band backwater. Who else is going to hype this creative caterwaul? Pitchfork?
The first four tracks on Infernal Machines—"Phobos," "Zeno," "Transit," and "Redeye"—resemble a complex yet viscerally persuasive meditation on big-band movement, as in buses, planes, astrophysics, and quantum mechanics. Solos emerge out of necessity rather than obligation, and grooves tend toward the 14-beat and 18-bar variety, yet the gut-punch immediacy of vintage big-band pleasure is never very far away. The same, surprisingly, goes for the politically freighted "Jacobin Club" and "Habeas Corpus," a pair of tautly controlled 11-minute compositions with twists and turns aplenty. It's maximalist music of impressive complexity and immense entertainment value, in your face and then in your head.
"It's weird to take the instrumentation associated with, say, the Glenn Miller sound and try to make contemporary music with it," Argue says. "There's no school much older than big band. Some people try to get around that with euphemisms like 'jazz orchestra' or 'large ensemble.' There's not a lot of point in doing that. It's a big band, and that's the least pretentious name for it, I guess."
Secret Society play Galapagos May 8, galapagosartspace.com