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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein

Photo by Lindsay Beyerstein

Coming off both Grammy and JUNO nominations for their album Brooklyn Babylon (New Amsterdam), Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society returns to The Jazz Gallery this weekend for two very special nights of performances—their last before the Newport Jazz Festival this August.

Having toured with the music from Brooklyn Babylon extensively this past year, it seems that it’s time for the Secret Society to move onto new things. To hear a bit about what the group is planning on playing this weekend and about new projects in the works, we caught up with composer, conductor, and ringleader Darcy James Argue at a coffee shop in Brooklyn.

The Jazz Gallery: What are you planning on playing this weekend? Stuff from Brooklyn Babylon? Older material? New material that you’ve been working on?

Darcy James Argue: It’s a mix of stuff. There’s some recently commissioned material that we haven’t recorded yet that we’ve started playing—three commissions from various groups.

There’s one for the West Point Jazz Knights, called “Codebreaker.” It was written in honor of Alan Turing’s 100th birthday, so that was something where I had to think about. “Okay, I’m writing a piece for the West Point Military Band. How do I feel about that?” But when I realized that it would be Alan Turing’s 100th birthday, I felt that it would be a really appropriate thing because he’s someone I’ve always had incredible admiration for as the father of modern computer science—who did more than any other civilian to win World War II and then of course was horribly mistreated by his own government after the war, and hounded into suicide for being gay. We played it last time we were at The Jazz Gallery, but probably most people still haven’t heard it because we haven’t recorded it.

There’s a piece, “Last Waltz for Levon,” which we’ve been also playing a fair bit. I started out thinking that I was actually going to write something for Dave Brubeck. I kind of did what his tune “The Duke” does, which is go through all twelve chromatic bass notes during the first A section, so I started out doing that, but then it kind of became this country waltz. You never know where a piece can take you, and this one took me much more into The Band’s musical territory, so it became a tribute to the great Levon Helm. That’s something I wrote for the Danish Radio Big Band, then adapted for Secret Society.

The third recent tribute was commissioned by the Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos, which is a Portuguese big band. They were having a festival of international jazz composers and were commissioning new work from each of them. They’ve just recorded it, so they’re going to put out this disk of pieces by myself and Ohad Talmor and Steven Bernstein and Forian Ross—all these great North American and European-based composers. My piece, called “All In,” became a tribute to the late trumpeter Laurie Frink. Laurie passed in the middle of my composing this piece. Her departure left a really big void: she played on Secret Society’s first record, she was with us when we played Newport for the first time. There are many people in the band who were close to her and were students of hers; it was just an overwhelming loss. When I heard about that, it just started to influence how I was writing the piece, and at the end of it I sort of thought, “Well, I think this might work as a tribute to Laurie.”

So we’re going to be playing those pieces, and then bringing up some other stuff that has some connections to The Jazz Gallery. There are actually two pieces off our first record Infernal Machines that were commissioned by the Gallery. One of them is “Jacobin Club,” basically about the French Revolution and the passage of Maximilien Robespierre from intellectual firebrand and democratic hero to tyrant and architect of the “Reign of Terror.” The other is “Obsidian Flow,” which is the closer of the album. We premiered them both at The Jazz Gallery immediately before going into the studio to make that first record.

We’re doing this piece “Dymaxion,” which is inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car, a really amazing vehicle—this early 1920s crazy, art-deco, futuristic thing, almost looking like an inverted teardrop. That’s something we haven’t played in a while, so we’ll be breaking that out. We’re breaking out “Ferromagnetic,” my tribute to American military contracting, and some material from Brooklyn Babylon.

TJG: About these new commissions that you’re going to play—you’ve had your own band for a while now that has a very strong personality, and you write for specific people in mind. When you write these pieces for other groups, do you hear the personality of Secret Society come through when you’re writing, or are you trying to get more inside the sound of the group you’re writing for?

DJA: As much as possible I try to write for the specific band that has commissioned the work. That often manifests itself in different instrumentation. Most big bands don’t have five trumpets, and the West Point Jazz Knights have four, but had a singer, so there was a voice part in “Codebreaker” originally. Whereas on the other side of the spectrum, the Danish Radio Big Band doesn’t just have five trumpets, but five trombones. They’re probably the only big band in the world with a 10-piece brass section. Instrumentally, they’re written for whoever’s paying the bill, and have to be adapted for Secret Society.

If I’m familiar with the soloists in the band that I’m writing for, I try to shape something that would be in their wheelhouse. But in most cases, I don’t know those bands as well as I know Secret Society, so you do your best and then you get there and hope that whoever’s playing on it has a sense of what you’re going for. And that’s usually worked out pretty well.

TJG: In these cases, do you have a chance to work with these groups on the music?

DJA: Yes, of course. I’m not the kind of composer who could write something at home and email the PDFs and be like, “You guys take it from there!” That has never been a way of working that has had any appeal for me or has made any sense to me. If I’m writing a commission, I want to be there to rehearse it and conduct for the premiere, otherwise I don’t feel like I’m really doing my job. That’s what’s always baffled me about the classical model of having these separately defined jobs of composer and conductor and ensemble, and having that level of ultra-specialization. I feel it really takes away the personalization of the music that’s important to me. If I’ve written it, then I know how it should be rehearsed and performed, and as much as possible I want to be able to achieve that.

TJG: In addition to these recent pieces that you’re playing at the Gallery this weekend, you have a new work for a very different ensemble, a duo for Secret Society member Erica von Kleist on flute with pianist Gerald Clayton. What have been some of the challenges writing for this more restricted palette?

DJA: Erica approached me about this saying that she was doing a duo record and most of the pieces would be for flute and piano with Gerald Clayton, and that she wanted me to write something for it. I was like, “So you mean like a lead sheet? How extensive do you want the writing to be?” In a small group situation like that, where both musicians are really good improvisers, you question yourself. “What do I need to do here, other than give you a framework or a sketch and let you take it your own way?”

But Erica was like, “No, I want something more through-composed. We’re going to be recording some classical flute and piano works, and I want something that has that degree of specificity, but also contains some room for improvisation as well.”

I was like, “Okay, I don’t even know of anything like that really. I don’t know of any models that I can use,” so I asked her for some examples of pieces for flute and piano that she really liked. It also needed to be something that had some momentum to it. For a lot of people, I think their first instinct when you ask them to write something for flute and piano would be to write something kind of slow and beautiful and very harmonically oriented.

And Erica was like, “No, I don’t want that. I want something that really flies.” At least that gives me something to start with, and that would be an interesting challenge because it’s not something I would normally begin with.

So I listened to a lot of stuff for flute and piano—a lot of flute sonatas—and tried to figure out what works and what doesn’t in terms of balancing when the flute takes the melody or when the piano takes over or when it’s more interactive, and using the register of the instrument. That was the biggest thing I was trying to figure out—how to use the timbre of the flute across its range. It doesn’t change as much as other instruments do; it’s actually fairly uniform. There’s an intensity to the high register and a breathiness to the low register, but it’s not like the bass clarinet, where it’s almost like a different instrument in each octave. So it became about trying to accentuate the differences that are there to really make it feel that you have enough contrast in the piece, that your ear doesn’t just get tired of that flute and piano sound.

One of the interesting things about the flute is that it can be very percussive. Unlike the other wind instruments, it involves tonguing like on a brass instrument so short notes can be very punctuated, and that’s something I ended up focusing in on. And there’s this rhythmic thing that happens throughout: this 3+3+4+3+3 rhythmic pattern that ended up being the clave, the hook to hang everything on.

We’ll see how this turns out. But I’m really excited—they’re such great musicians. I got to listen to Gerald’s most recent recordings and his solo piano work and really tried to write something that would be composed, but enough in his wheelhouse that it felt like it would be a good fit.

TJG: Let’s talk about your next big commission, a new suite your group is going to premiere at the Newport Jazz Festival in August. What kinds of ideas are you drawing on for this piece?

DJA: It’s actually going to get its world premiere at the Vancouver Jazz Festival—in my hometown—and it’s commissioned by the Hard Rubber Orchestra, which is a Vancouver big band. They’re going to be premiering this in June and I’ll be going out to work with them on it.

It’s really exciting for me. There are some really fantastic musicians in the Hard Rubber Orchestra, people who I heard growing up. They were the Vancouver cool avant-garde big band who would do Hendrix covers and that kind of thing, so it’s going to be really fun to write something for them.

My thinking is less influenced by the great stuff that went up at Newport so much and more by my memory of what it was like to be a 15-year-old kid taking the SeaBus out to Gastown to check out this crazy bunch of jazz weirdos, essentially, doing this avant-garde big band music, and just being in the front row going like, “Man, this isn’t at all like Thad & Mel. This is something completely different. This is kind of awesome.” The emotion of that experience of just having your boundaries expanded that way—that energy is something that I’m hoping to capture in the piece.

TJG: So was the Hard Rubber Orchestra a major gateway drug into more creative approaches to making jazz?

DJA: I don’t want to oversell it, but I would say that the Vancouver Festival generally was, because there was so much free music and there were opportunities for underage kids to hear great stuff, and the programming was always really great and that was always something that I would always look forward to every year. You have to remember at the time there was no internet. This was it; this was your opportunity as a teenager to expand your musical universe in a way you could afford.

You never knew exactly what you would encounter. There would be some verging-on smooth jazz kind of fusion stuff; there would be Ray Anderson and Han Bennink; there would be Evan Parker. There was this whole range of stuff. That’s what made it interesting—I hadn’t zeroed in on this particular thing yet. It was more like, “Oh! You can do that, and you can do that, and you can do that, and it’s all jazz.”

TJG: Now that you’re in New York and working as a composer and bandleader, do you still have these experiences of seeing something unexpected and new that opens up new musical possibilities?

DJA: I’m biased because the Ecstatic Music Festival is put on by my record label New Amsterdam Records, but the programming is an exciting and vital model. The last thing I saw last week was rapper-poet Saul Williams and the Mivos Quartet. I have to say, I went into it with an enormous degree of skepticism because you had this German avant-garde, high modernist composer Thomas Kessler doing this extended technique string writing over Saul’s flow. It sort of built around his delivery. Those worlds are so far apart, especially in terms of the connection to a beat, which is anathema for modernist music. A defining feature of modernist music is that you can’t hear the pulse. I went and I really like the Mivos quartet and I really like Saul, but I didn’t know how this thing would work, and they completely killed it. It was one of those things that, at the end, I still didn’t know why it worked. It probably shouldn’t have, but it was great.

That’s an experience that I find the most satisfying—that if there’s something where I’m a little bit skeptical going, like we know the pitfalls of this kind of collaboration, and I’m worried that it’s just going to be really awkward and awful. When it kills, for me at least, it’s one of the more satisfying experiences as a listener. Like going in thinking, “I don’t know if these people get it,” and then they really get it in a way that expands your sense of what’s possible.

TJG: In many ways your music works on this level—Radiohead and minimalism and big band aren’t obvious bedfellows. How did you come to the idea that these particular unlike things could actually work together?

DJA: I guess I’m always trying to look for connections that aren’t just superficial or timbral or textural between musics because those things are always the most obvious things and tend to be the least satisfying things. If someone just has a piece for chamber orchestra and distorted electric guitar, but the language is completely alien to the language of rock, but it just happens to have this random, overbearing distorted guitar that sounds like the cheesiest guitar in the world, it’s clear that this composer doesn’t really get how that sound functions. They get what it is, but not what motivates it and why it works when it works.

If I’m drawing from, say, Balkan music, or if I’m drawing from post-minimalist rhythms or big ‘M’ Modernist harmonies or that large-scale structural thinking, I’m not necessarily looking for the way those things are used, but the motivation behind them or the aesthetic effect that they create. If I’m going to put these things together that come from separate worlds, I need to know if there is any kind of similar motivation I can find for using those types of things—whether there is something under the surface that binds them, as opposed to just deliberately taking things that are worlds apart and simply juxtaposing without any kind of synthesis.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society performs at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, March 14th and Saturday, March 15th. The band is under the direction of Mr. Argue and features Erica von Kleist, Sharel Cassity, Sam Sadigursky, Dan Willis, and Carl Maraghi on winds; Seneca Black, Tom Goehring, Matt Holman, Nadje Noordhuis, and David Smith on trumpet; Joe Fiedler (March 14), Mike Fahie (March 15), Darius Christian Jones, Jacob Garchik, and Jennifer Wharton on trombone; Sebastian Noelle on guitar, Gordon Webster on piano, Linda Oh (March 14), and Matt Clohesy (March 15) on bass, and Jon Wikan on drums. Sets are at 9 and 11 p.m. $20 general admission ($10 for members). Purchase tickets here.