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A little more than a decade ago, Maria Schneider served notice that big band jazz was no longer the domain of our grandparents. She has gone on to own the genre and now, Brooklyn resident and star Schneider pupil, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society takes it to an exceptional place with his debut, Infernal Machines. What is exceptional is how true to the pure nature of jazz this collection is; full of innovation, creativity, and bold, daring departures from the commonplace.
Free improvisation, or its more conscious counterpart, is difficult even in a small setting. Argue's eighteen piece ensemble manages to pull off a menagerie of styles that range from dissonant to lyrical to a wilder Loose Tubes type of progressive swing. It never falters and it is never anything less than an intriguing trip. The remarkable thing here is not that Secret Society is so adept at each distinctive form (18 good musicians can pull that off); it is that Argue, as a world class composer and arranger, uses them so cohesively and to the stimulating affect that he does.
"Obsidian Flow" begins as a leisurely paced tune seemingly built for a rhythm section more than an orchestra. Argue's cinematic touch lets the piece build, telling a story as it unfolds into a full blown collective work for the larger group. Similarly, "Habeas Corpus," on paper, could sound like a straightforward Point A to Point B transition but the sound is both complex and nuanced at the same time, and it demands repeated listening. In this piece, Argue incorporates a classical crescendo and then an almost rock style electric guitar all in the midst of a solid jazz foundation. If it sounds like too much, it isn't. The magic in Argue's method is that each influence blends seamlessly into the next without disrupting the context of the piece.
The faultless flow and blending of styles is present on every track of Infernal Machines. "Jacobin Club" flirts with a Middle Eastern subtext if only for a moment. "Redeye" floats along on gentle, if slightly hallucinogenic electric guitar riffs, not bringing in the orchestra until late. Throughout the collection there are brief and brilliant passages that can make you wonder if you heard what you suspect you did. This is an endlessly interesting collection and creates anticipation for a sophomore effort from Argue.
Personnel: Darcy James Argue: composer, conductor, ringleader; Erica von Kleist: 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.