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Darcy James Argue: His Secret Society

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.

Darcy James ArgueAAJ: They carry it out extremely well. I know they're not making a ton of dough, so it's got to be satisfying to you that they can step in and do that.

DJA: It's incredibly gratifying to have so many top-notch players to come in and sweat and toil for ridiculously, embarrassingly low compensation in order to make this music come to life.

AAJ: Live at the Poisson Rouge, is something you recorded at the gig. But the recording that you're working on will be a studio thing called Infernal Machines. How's that going?

DJA: We're going into Bennett Studios in Englewood (New Jersey) in December to record this record right after a weekend at the Jazz Gallery, (New York City, December 12 and 13, 2008). We're heading to the studio immediately after to try to get some of this music on hard drive. I'm really excited about that. It's a big step for us. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to give the music the kind of richness and attention to detail that you can only really get in a studio recording.

There's nothing quite like the power of a big band live. It can be overwhelming to see Maria's [Schneider] big band or the Vanguard big band. The sound that they're able to conjure is exceptional. But as a composer, you want everybody to hear everything, the tiniest details. That's only possible with the studio recording. To go in where everyone is close-miked and pay attention in the mixing to make sure everything is balanced all the way through, and that all of the little things and little twists or turns or details, ornaments you put in the music, get their proper due. I'm really excited about that prospect.

AAJ: Also, you're doing things for the album like ArtistShare, but not exactly, where you're asking people to donate and so on. How is that going?

DJA: Everyone is currently trying to figure out what a career in music is going to look like in this post-record company era. ArtistShare is one way of going about it. That's a great model because it allows the artist to have control of their product. And we're doing something similar with New Amsterdam Records—in that they have a very generous artist agreement, which is publicly available. It's a Google document that anyone can see. They allow their artists to own the masters, which is incredibly important, and to have the majority of the proceeds from album sales until the recording costs are recouped, which is great. The only kink in that chain is the ability to come up with the money to actually make the record in the first place. That's an area where artists are often on their own.

The great thing about the Internet era of the music business is that through this blog, which I've had almost as long as I've had the band, I've established a relationship with the listeners to this group. There are people who are fans of Secret Society who've never heard the band live. They've only heard the recordings that I've posted of our live shows, and downloaded those. The music has had a much wider penetration than it ever would have back in the days when, say, Guillermo Klein's band was playing regularly at Small's (nightclub, NYC). The only people who heard that group before they had an album out were the people who came down to see it in New York.

Now there's a chance for a much broader group of people to hear our music, even before we have our first studio record. Having that base of support means there are also people who—if they really believe in the music—I can ask to contribute to our fundraiser to get some money together to actually make this record. I'm being blown away by the generosity of the fans of this group. It's been incredibly humbling to know people believe in this group enough, and believe in this recording enough, to go and donate some of their hard-earned money to make sure we can make it a success.

It's both incredibly gratifying and makes me feel and even stronger responsibility to make sure that this album is the best we can possibly make it.

AAJ: Some musicians are afraid of offering free downloads, but you've been doing that to your advantage.

DJA: In the Internet era, the question isn't: Are people going to pay for my music. The question is: Everything is out there pretty much for free. How do I get people to listen to the free music that I'm giving away, as opposed to the free music that everybody else is giving away. The idea that you can bottle everything up and prevent people from accessing it unless they pay for it—that idea will not fly anymore.

What I've tried to do is that pretty much everything that we've played, I've recorded and put up a live recording on our website for free for people to download. The idea is that it really doesn't cost me anything to do that. I have a little digital machine that I use to record it, transfer it to the computer and put it up on the Internet. The idea of this is an enticement for people to listen to the group and maybe follow it and come out to some gigs. Hopefully if they like this, they will enjoy the studio recording and might be willing to pay for that when it becomes available.

Anyone who doesn't have their material on the Internet, at least for streaming purposes these days, is going to be left in the dust. I'm excited about these possibilities. It gives a chance for people all over the world, who will never be able to come out to hear the band live, to hear it. Years before we were in the position to make a studio recording there were people in Japan and Australia listening to this band. I can't think of anything better from a composer's point of view than to have that kind of distribution for your music.

The unfamiliar is always going to be scary to some people. Just because it's scary doesn't mean you shouldn't face up to the reality of it. You're not going to be able to change the technology, regardless of your attitude toward it. So the question is: Here's the reality; how do I navigate the unchartered waters.
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