A Speakeasy of the Mind

The password to the speakeasy is “Infernal Machines,” you’ll be able to use it very soon. That’s the title of the premier release from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, a contemporary jazz big band which as good as you’ll find. This is as fine a big band recording as I’ve ever heard, and it is as fascinating, satisfying and accomplished as Gil Evans’ seminal “Out of the Cool” from 1961, and while we must wait to see what it may bear in influence, it powerfully renews the idea and the ideals of progressive big band music, making what seems an old-fashioned ensemble very much of the moment.

Argue calls The Secret Society a “steampunk big band,” and the idea is clear and ironic even though it doesn’t translate directly into the music. While to me steampunk is an aesthetic of imaginary nostalgia, the false memory of a time that never came and how it was imagined during a time lost to our own experiences, it also makes sense as a simultaneous preservation and updating of something old-fashioned. I say this is ironic because anyone who seriously listens to jazz knows that the big band is only as old-fashioned as you make it. Certainly the repertory big band exists to preserve a legacy, but the large jazz ensemble has been an exceptional laboratory for the development of jazz ideas since even before “The Birth of the Cool,” and continues to be an important training ground for young musicians. The big bands of Evans and Stan Kenton and their peers were the primary place for the attempt to marry jazz and Western classical music, the so-called “Third Stream” movement. Listening to this body of musical history again, I find the results both compelling and strange. “Third Stream” didn’t really bear children, but it did leave us with “Sketches of Spain” and “City of Glass,” among the most notable recordings, music which is not really jazz anymore, but not quite classical either. The former is a fascinating, beautiful but emotionally distant comment from jazz on a certain style of classical music, the latter very much an experiment in Modern music composed for the big band (perhaps more accurately called the huge band) that somehow manages to navigate an eccentric path between neo-Romanticism and the structures that 12-tone composers commonly developed. John Litweiler thought of “City of Glass” as a precursor to Cecil Taylor, and I don’t think he’s wrong; like Taylor’s work, it’s an example of what happens when artist decided to stretch well past their own traditions.

Argue is continuing this tradition. He’s updating the big band for the 21st century, in tune with contemporary popular and classical music – think of it as a Cord with a fuel-injected engine. The sense of orchestral color and interplay and the prevalence of various rock beats, rather than swing, are some of the modern hallmarks. What sets this music both inside history and outside of the crowd is Argue’s contemporary taste and his compositional thinking. You can hear it immediately on ‘Phobos:’ the heavily processed, skittering beat that would not be out of place on an Autechre or Radiohead song; a pulse-drive bass; a long, sinuous melodic line. These elements all move at a different pace and are encased in an odd-numbered meter that is incredibly subtle and supple – this is real polyphony and a possibility in a big band that has been under-explored. But then a lot of big band music is just large-scale instrumentation of standard jazz forms, and “Infernal Machines” is a collection of jazz pieces composed for the big band. The difference is in the long view, of how the music starts, where it should end, and how it gets there. In between there can be a great deal more than a 12-bar blues or theme-theme-bridge-theme song form. This opening track is in roughly an ABACD form, followed by a groove to disintegration. It’s a stunner.

Another element of contemporary music that is an important element of this record is the process of developing polyphony – many voices – and complexity out of setting different repeated pulses against each other. Steve Reich is one of the most well-known pioneers, and I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that there is an almost direct quote from Reich’s “New York Counterpoint” tucked into the music. It’s another element of a compositional, rather than arranging, approach. I can’t emphasize enough how Argue’s broad range of thinking makes this such a unique and important example of jazz composing. I also want to point out that this technical examination in no way expresses how exciting, grooving, how beautiful, powerful and emotionally rich his work is.

Allow me to repeat; this is a seriously great band, with a tremendous rhythm section, a beautiful blend of brass and winds, chops and enormous reserves of power. The soloists are outstanding, particularly Ryan Keberle‘s tasty, funky trombone on ‘Zeno’ and Ingrid Jensen‘s searching trumpet on ‘Transit.’ The album comes to an intense and unresolved end, not unlike Mingus’ “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” which just leaves one reaching for the replay button. Because, to repeat something else, this is a seriously great record, one of the finest examples of new jazz I’ve heard in the past decade, one of the finest big band records ever made, one of the finest jazz records I’ve truly ever heard.

“Infernal Machines” is out Tuesday, May 12. If you can’t wait, head to Galapagos Art Space this Friday to see the band in person. My personal tragedy is that over a year ago I committed to the Mahler Symphonies in sequence at Carnegie Hall, beginning this week, and so cannot make this show. My apologies to the great man, but damn you Mahler!


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.


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