What's a guy to do when he has aspirations to form a big band in this day and age? Certainly the odds are against him; for one thing, there isn't much of a market for it, and the cost of taking that many musicians on the road (much less paying them) can be cost prohibitive. But if you're Darcy James Argue, you say to hell with it and form a big band anyway. The result is the Secret Society and its debut album, Infernal Machines.
The Secret Society bears little resemblance to swing bands of the past except in basic instrumentation. Argue envisions, in his own words, a society in which the big bands stuck around and evolved with the shifting landscape of music. While there have been notable big bands to thrust the music into the present (the Francy-Boland Big Band comes to mind) no one currently is making music that sounds this contemporary. It's easy to imagine that Argue has it right: this is what modern big band music should sound like.
The bedrock of the Secret Society approach is in the rhythm section, which is the easiest indication of where this unit breaks from the past. Jon Wikan employs the skittering drum work normally associated with electronica, and no tunes seem to be in a standard time signature; everything shifts around, stubbornly refusing to settle on a groove. The dark compositions are similarly unsettling; foreboding motifs, some of which never seem to find a resolution, played with cold precision. The solos are almost unnecessary, given that the goal here is a sustained mood and texture. This is music that sounds as if Miles Davis' In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and Radiohead's Kid A (EMI, 2000) were somehow mixed together, with a few off-the-wall influences thrown in for extra flavor.
There's no doubt that Argue is an intriguing figure on the jazz (or whatever) scene, and one worth following. Infernal Machines suffers a little from a lack of variety; the concept is unusual, but there's a certain amount of sameness that pervades the record. Argue isn't quite there yet, and he's probably the type of musician who's unlikely to be satisfied with his current work, always reaching for the next great idea. But if he continues to develop, his next record will be a killer.
Personnel: Darcy James Argue: composer, conductor, ringleader; Erica vonKleist: flute, alto flute, soprano and alto saxophones; Rob Wilkerson: flute, clarinet, soprano and alto saxophones; Sam Sadigursky: clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones; Mark Small: clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone; Josh Sinton: clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone; Seneca Black: lead trumpet; Ingrid Jensen: trumpet; Laurie Frink: trumpet; Nadje Noordhuis: trumpet; Tom Goehring: trumpet; Ryan Keberle: trombone; Mike Fahie: trombone; James Hirschfeld: trombone; Jennifer Wharton: bass trombone; Sebastian Noelle: acoustic and electric guitars; Mike Holober: piano, electric piano; Matt Clohesy: contrabass, electric bass; Jon Wikan: drum set, cajon, pandeiro, miscellaneous percussion.