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Darcy James Argue: His Secret Society

By Published: December 9, 2008
AAJ: So, in your writing and arranging there are all kinds of influences beyond Ellington or Mingus. You use today's sounds.

DJA: Yeah. I live in the world like everyone else and I'm affected by everything around me. It probably takes some effort to exclude any kind of popular music from your musical world and from thinking about it. I listen to jazz and I listen to new classical music and those things are really important to me. I think it's also healthy to listen to things other people your age are also listening to.

I don't love every little thing that I hear, but there's so much creativity and so much conceptual greatness, especially, going on in indie rock right now—a lot of the Brooklyn bands and the Austin bands. Explosions in the Sky, for instance. You do your music a disservice if you cut yourself off from those kinds of avenues of influence, even if it's a negative influence—if what you want to do is to somehow stand apart from what's going on now. At least being aware of it gives you some leg to stand on. Knee-jerk dismissal of anything that falls outside the narrow parameters of jazz or of Art music is incredibly unhealthy for the music, not just in terms of the listenership, but in terms of art, in terms of the kind of dialog between popular music and jazz that used to be taken for granted.

The amazing and frustrating thing is the idea that jazz is something that is unaffected by popular music. That's a new idea. That's not something that Charlie Parker would have recognized, that Duke Ellington would have recognized, or Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis or any of those people. That's something that's been imposed on the music relatively recently, this idea of jazz purism that makes no concession to popular culture.

AAJ: A lot of musicians say your music is difficult music. You're not writing difficult things as an end in itself.

DJA: Given the logistics of it, I try to make things as easy as I possibly can. The fact is, I'm trying to do some things that are a little bit off the beaten path rhythmically and harmonically and conceptually. It takes a little bit of adjustment. For players who are used to seeing some of these rhythms maybe in their small group stuff, that's one thing. But to have to play them together in a big band with 17 other musicians, that becomes a bit of a challenge.

The difficulty, I feel like it arrives organically, out of the challenges of trying to ... this is a very complicated topic.

I'm not trying to push boundaries for their own sake. I don't believe in this Darwinian idea of progress in jazz, like where Wayne Shorter is better than Charlie Parker and Steve Coleman is better than Wayne Shorter, by virtue of being more complex in certain ways. That's bullshit. I am trying to express something that's individual and to write music that is specific to my own experience and my own values. Naturally out of that desire to create something unique and personal, your music is going to have unique and personal , technical challenges that arise organically, just from your trying to express your voice. I think that's where the difficulty comes from. Trying to be true to my voice. I'm not trying to write music that is a bitch to play just for the sake of kicking the asses of the people who play the music. It's not about that. The difficulty is a means to an end, it's not an end in itself.

AAJ: Composition versus improvisation in your written music, what's the balance there? I know you give the musicians room to express themselves.

DJA: The most important thing about my music, the thing that I can do by having such a large group and having these compositions that are, more or less, through composed—there's not a lot of repeating sections or looping forms—is it allows me to establish a large-scale musical narrative that has a rising action, a falling action, and has the same sense of internal drama of a great movie or a great play might have. The most important thing for the soloist is to understand their role in the drama. They're not at odds with where the music has to go. It's a very dangerous thing.

It's something Brookmeyer talks about all the time—handing control of your music over to a soloist in this kind of setting. As a composer you have to take responsibility for the whole thing, so you develop a lot of ways, subtle and not so subtle within the music, of trying to encourage soloists to go in a certain direction with the music by the way you're writing around them. The way the band is interacting with them. In some ways that can be constraining for players who are used to having a more open-ended approach. But in other ways, I think they enjoy the challenge of having a role to play, knowing what that role is and trying to work out a way to be individual and expressive and creative and unpredictable within the confines of this story that unfolds a certain way.

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