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Darcy James Argue: His Secret Society

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It was becoming evident that my voice was coming out a lot clearer in my compositions than it was in my piano playing
Darcy James ArgueAhhhh, to be young and in New York and have an 18-piece band of superb musicians at your disposal.

OK. Now open your eyes and come to your senses. To operate a big band these days is a fiscal and organizational nightmare. But thankfully, there are people out there running fabulous organizations, like Sue Mingus who continues to present her husband's legacy bands, Carla Bley and the brilliant Maria Schneider, whose wondrous music is food for the senses and soul. On the other coast, there's John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton doing what they can. The Basie and Ellington organizations are around. And there are other cats—Jason Linder, John Hollenbeck, Mike Kaplan—and others (sorry not to mention them all), who have been bringing out larger groups when they can.

Add to the list a young man from Vancouver, Canada, who this year has been opening eyes and ears with his Secret Society, an 18-piece orchestra based out of the Big Apple. Influenced by some of the best composers and arrangers around, Darcy James Argue, 33, and his group are fast becoming not-so-secret. He's garnered critical praise from just about everyone who has heard the band. Like Schneider, Argue does not play his instrument (piano), but leads the band with all-original music that has influences not only from jazz, but rock, alternative and any music that he feels has something to draw from.

His isn't a band playing old charts or stuck in neo-bop formats. Argue is adamant about drawing on varied sources to bring the music that is inside him to the world. The praise is well-deserved.

Writing and arranging personal, thought-provoking music is hard enough. But toss into the mix the financial problems of having a big band in these times that are not only financially bleak, but resistant to what they might feel "big band music" is. And add to that the general malaise in the music industry, in terms of how many gigs are out there, how CD sales are declining, how recoding and distributing music has gone topsy turvy with the decline of major labels and the Brave New World of the Internet.

Argue is undeterred. He knows the difficulties, but forges ahead. His accomplishments thus far are noteworthy, if not remarkable.

The band is comprised of some of New York's finest musicians, some of whom also play in Schneider's orchestra, and all of them involved in other projects. Argue was astounded, and greatly satisfied, that when he formed the idea for the band and began asking musicians to participate, they readily came forth—even though he was unknown to almost all of them. The cast may not always be the same, but they have included folks like trumpeters Ingrid Jensen and Tim Hagans, saxophonists Donny McCaslin and John Ellis, trombonist Ryan Keberle and drummer Jon Wikan.

The group headlined a night at the 2008 New Languages Festival, and has performed at venues including Le Poisson Rouge, the Jazz Gallery, the Living Theatre, Flux Factory, and the Bowery Poetry Club in New York. They did a Canadian tour this year that included a performance at the last International Association for Jazz Education conference in Toronto.

Argue has only been in New York for about five years, following his studies at the New England Conservatory, where the renowned Bob Brookmeyer was his main mentor. But he's has also studied along the way with Lee Hyla, Randall Woolf, Schneider and Hollenbeck.

His beginnings in Vancouver were quiet. He studied piano from a young age, but took it more seriously in high school, listening to jazz, transcribing solos from recordings and learning about jazz harmonies. But that wasn't all that passed through the ears of a kid in the 1980s.

"I was listening to the same stuff that anybody else my age would be listening to," says Argue, "like Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction (Geffen 1987). I liked Living Colour. Vivid (Epic, 1988) was probably my favorite record. But in order to learn enough piano to play in the school band it seemed like not such a bad idea to get some jazz records. I knew I should get some Miles Davis records—tapes at that time. The first one I picked up was the soundtrack to the movie Siesta (Warner Bros., 1987), which is not maybe the most shining moment in Miles' catalog. I picked up Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) shortly after that. I took down the Wynton Kelly solo on "Freddie Freeloader" in B, because the tape was running fast on that issue and the cassette always ran fast. Later on I learned it in the proper key (B flat).

"I started doing that kind of thing. Getting some Charlie Parker recordings. Clark Terry with Thelonious Monk, In Orbit (Riverside/OJC, 1958). That was an early one I really liked. And sort of backing up from there. For whatever reason, I don't really know why, it was easy for me to listen to those records. They made an immediate emotional impression. Especially when I first heard Wynton Kelly. I was, like: 'That's the way to play. That's what I want to sound like.' That was pretty vivid at the time."

Argue, outspoken, articulate and intelligent, was turned onto Charles Mingus by a high school teacher, an influences that remains strong. He went to McGill University in Montreal for under grad work in jazz piano. He stayed there for a while, playing in small groups.

"Things started to go pretty well for me in Montreal. I did the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2000 with my small group and I won the SOCAN award for composition there. So it was time to quit town. I had been in correspondence with Bob Brookmeyer over e-mail over various things. I had started teaching an arranging class at McGill at that time, a few years after I graduated. I was asking a few things about his music. He suggested I send some of my own writing to him. I did. He said I should go down and study with him at the New England Conservatory. At the time I hadn't actually thought of doing a master's degree, but I figured if Bob Brookmeyer wanted me to come study with him, then I should oblige him."

Oblige him he did. And from NEC, went a virtual unknown into New York City. Eventually, the formation of the band was something he was completed to follow, and it worked out beyond his expectations.

In December 2008, the band goes into the studio for the first time to cut its first official album, to be dubbed Infernal Machines, a term which comes from a delicious quote from John Phillip Sousa that bears repeating, in which he complains that modern technology—radio—is going to ruin music:

Darcy James Argue "These talking machines will ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy, in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today, you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal chord left in America! The vocal chord will be eliminated by a process of evolution as was the tail of man when he came down from the ape."

No doubt the infernal machines of today are computers. We would all disagree with Sousa. It's Argue's disagreement with some traditions that make his perspective refreshing and attractive. His infernal music is going to be making waves for some time.

Much of the band's music is available at Argue's website, where he also maintains a hip blog about music, politics and other things. He has no objection to offering music for his fan base that is growing around the world, thanks to his liberal use of the Internet and its ability to spread music everywhere. Argue is savvy about such things and willing to keep his eyes and ears open to anything in this new atmosphere that will enhance music.

The music is alive, taking unexpected directions. It provides a wide sampling for the sense, at times almost film-like as it carries the listener along. Argue has a fertile imagination that has miles to go. It's a journey worth taking with him.

Live at Le Poisson Rouge is about 25 minutes of music recorded in July at the New York City venue. It's one of several live concert free downloads that are available on the Secret Society website. "Ferromagnetic" starts out eerily, builds to a driving sound, propelled by saxophones and trombones before trumpets offer a soaring melody, then into a funk phase, over which Tim Hagans solos. The music shifts along like he countryside as a passenger looks out the window of a train. It's not theme, solo segments and theme again. It's taken you from one place to another and showed you interesting landscape long the way.

"Desolation Sound" is aptly named and the feeling is projected right from the start. It could almost be a movie soundtrack—someone walking through a dark street at night, not knowing where they're headed or what's around the corner. Cries from horns and twists could have come from Mingus. (He is, affirms Argue, one of his early influences). The exotic flavor of the solo over percussion recalls Ellington. But it's more modern. Those are only flavors used in the recipe. There's never traditional swing, the steady rhythm from Argue's pen comes from other sources.

"Transit" has the brass stating a solemn line at the onset before a swinging groove develops and the sharp ideas of the composer come to the fore. The palate is full. Listen to the sounds under Nadje Noordhuis' flugelhorn solo. Remarkable. He needs 189 pieces. The colors come from the mind of someone developing a unique voice. The crescendo of sound that emerges is stirring, stimulating.

The band can cook too. Try "Flux in a Box," from the band's set at a club called La Sala Rossa in Montreal back in January, for kick-ass rhythm section swing and sweet horns.

While relatively new to the scene, Argue is no fly-by-night. He is also a founding member of the New York composers' federation Pulse, which has presented projects featuring musicians like John Abercrombie. He was selected for the Brooklyn Philharmonic Composer Mentorship Program, and his work "Body Double," for string quartet and tapan, was premiered by percussionist Svet Stoyanov and members of the Brooklyn Philharmonic at the Music Off The Walls series at the Brooklyn Museum. Argue has also written arrangements for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's collaborations with singers Lizz Wright and Shelby Lynne, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band.

Argue's awards and commissions include the Jazz Gallery's Large Ensemble Commissioning Series, the BMI Charlie Parker Composition Prize/Manny Albam Commission, the SOCAN/IAJE Emerging Jazz Composer Award, the SOCAN Award for Composition, the Down Beat Student Music Award, and grants from Meet The Composer, the American Music Center, and the Canada Council for the Arts. In addition to his own groups, Argue's music has been performed by the BMI New York Jazz Orchestra, the Eastman New Jazz Ensemble, the University of North Texas Jazz Repertory Ensemble, the NEC Jazz Composers' Orchestra, the McGill Jazz Orchestra, and others.

All About Jazz: Who were your influences in terms of writing and arranging?

Darcy James Argue: A lot of people. Among my early composition influences was (Charles) Mingus. The other guy that I listened to a lot early on would be Thad Jones. Especially in terms of the big band stuff. We had done some drastically simplified version of Thad's chart "Us" in junior high jazz band. After that, I went to check out some of those original Thad Jones/Mel Lewis recordings. I really, really loved the sound of that and internalized that pretty quickly.

Thad was really my model in terms of learning how to arrange for a big band and bringing in some of that rich, 1960s Herbie Hancock-style harmony into a big band context. Jim McNeely talks about how Thad took the music of the '60s and big-bandized it. He doesn't necessarily get a lot of credit for it. It's very hard swinging and whatnot, but the harmonic richness is incredible. The angularity in some of those lines, especially the saxophones, is wonderful.

From there, it was natural progression to studying Brookmeyer's music and learning about that. Like everyone else, when Maria Schneider's first record (Evanescence, Enja, 1994) came out, it completely floored me. I think everyone who heard it with the slightest interest in big band music was like, "Oh my god. What is that?" That opened up a lot of new avenues and possibilities. I think Maria did to jazz of the '90s what Thad did to jazz of the '60s.

Darcy James Argue

Then of course, Gil Evans. He was a huge influence as an arranger, especially his ability to take something and completely transform it and make it focus on mood and color and texture. The smallest details serve the narrative of those arrangements. That made a huge impression on me. A lot of composers tend to get fixated on the micro-details; exactly where the notes are in the spacing, what orchestration is being used. All that stuff is important in terms of developing a facility with arranging and harmony, but I think with the really great composers and arrangers, especially someone like Gil Evans, what stands out is the story of the piece and how all those great little details are there not just because they're great little details, but to bring out the story or the narrative of the piece.

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