The reverb-drenched cajon rhythm, subtle electric guitar washes and lush horn refrains that open Infernal Machines, the studio debut of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, introduce the sound of a big band like no otherproving that the critical acclaim lavished upon this eighteen-piece ensemble since their first gig in 2005 has been entirely justified.
Despite boasting an album title quoting John Philip Sousa on the dangers of technological music advancements, Argue's Secret Society nonetheless embraces the future, eschewing swing band revivalism in favor of a contemporary electro-acoustic approach. Drawing inspiration from classic stalwarts like the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra as well as pioneering post-rock bands like Explosions In The Sky and Tortoise, Argue tastefully incorporates electric guitars, Fender Rhodes and electric bass into traditional big band instrumentation, extending the innovations of such visionaries as Don Ellis, Gil Evans and George Russell.
Straddling the pastoral opulence of Maria Schneider's Orchestra and the visceral brio of Adam Lane's Full Throttle Orchestra and Satoko Fujii's various big bands, Argue has succeeded at creating a magnificent chimera. His harmonically rich blend of contrapuntal horn voicings, atmospheric electronic textures and post-minimalist rhythms surpass the early fusion experiments of his predecessors, yielding a fully integrated sound world as current as it is timeless.
Honing his writing and arranging skills under the tutelage of legendary jazz composer Bob Brookmeyer, Argue balances the voluminous power of a big band with the subtle nuance of a small combo, revealing elegant charts bolstered by dramatic gestures. The braying horns and staccato electric guitars that accompany James Hirschfeld's brash trombone on the visceral finale to "Habeas Corpus" ascend to a logical climax rather than the blustery fanfare of a hackneyed coda. Embracing a full spectrum of moods, the anthemic riffs that accent Ingrid Jensen's probing trumpet solo on "Transit" dynamically contrast with the languid rustic scrim that descends on Sebastian Noelle's psychedelic electric guitar musings on "Redeye."
Periodically summoning the ensemble's full sonic potential, Argue conjures raucous electric guitar interludes, rousing horn swells and pulverizing rhythms to fortify these episodic tunes. His forte, however, is sketching impressionistic vistas such as the Mingus-like Mediterranean blues of "Jacobin Club" or the bucolic tone poem "Redeye." A masterful tunesmith, his dramatic sense of pacing borders on the cinematic, and his instinct for arranging multiple voices into colorful pitch sets exudes kaleidoscopic detail worthy of Ellington.
Secret Society combines rising stars and relative newcomers, but the real star is Argue. The only other contemporary composer who embraces the diverse possibilities of a band this size is Maria Schneider (a fellow Brookmeyer graduate). Although the halcyon days of the big bands are long past, Infernal Machines stands defiant, updating the big band tradition for the new millennium while presenting exciting possibilities for the future.
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.