Darcy James Argue and His Steampunk Big Band

The world is catching up with Darcy James Argue. Two years ago, he was known mainly for having the strangest name in jazz since Ornette Coleman. Now he's a double winner in Downbeat's 2013 Critics' Poll—the top pick for Best Arranger, and tied with Maria Schneider for Best Big Band Leader.

By no stretch is Argue "rich and famous." This is jazz, after all. But he's making it within the realm of his choosing, and the band he created—in its vibe and its music—has crossover potential.

His 18-piece ensemble, which he calls Secret Society, isn't your granddad's big band. The liner notes of his first album, Infernal Machines (2009), are set in the typeface of a Victorian political pamphlet and state that the sessions were "recorded 'twixt the 15th and 17th of December in the Year of Our Lord MMVIII." The musicians' names are listed under the heading "Co-Conspirators," with Argue identified as "Composer, Conductor, Ringleader."

Clearly, Argue, who's 38, has his playful side, but the persona he's crafted is no mere affectation. It's an integral aspect of the music. He describes his group as a "steampunk big band," after the genre of postmodern fiction that tells futuristic stories that take place in the distant past.

Secret Society springs from this same tension. "It's the idea of big bands as an antiquated form of music that evolved to fill a niche in their heyday but fell from popularity, and are now the domain of eccentrics," he explained. "I'm exploring what big-band music might sound like if it had stayed popular and incorporated all the music that's come along since—rock, grunge, hip-hop, everything."

The conceit may sound a bit precious on paper, but not on the bandstand. Flutes clashing with polyrhythmic percussion, an electric guitar streaking through mysterious horn reveries, melody lines crisscrossing at different tempos, laced in lush harmonies or dark dissonances—all of it propelled forward, head-swirling but seamless and accessible: in an oddball way, it swings, sways, rocks, or all three. Argue is tying together the disparate strands of music that have shaped his life and his rambling era.

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It's a high-risk road. Pianists can play the tunes they write whenever they want; horn players can readily assemble a trio or quartet. But big-band composers, just to hear their music, need a big band—14 to 18 people adept at reading music—and that can be unwieldy and expensive. Or, as Argue put it, "The ratio of work to satisfaction in big-band composing is incredibly unfavorable."

Argue was born and raised in North Vancouver, British Columbia. His parents weren't particularly musical, but they owned a cassette tape of First Time! The Count Meets the Duke, featuring the combined big bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. When he was 11, Argue played one song on that tape over and over: "To You," one of Thad Jones's richest ballads.

The next year, Argue tried out as pianist for his school's junior jazz band (he'd been playing piano since age four), but lost out to an older student. He was given fourth chair in the trumpet section, which he hated until, one day, the band played another Thad Jones tune, a funky number called "Us," and he saw that the score gave the fourth trumpet all the jarring notes—the weird, grinding harmonies that Argue would later accent in his own music.

In high school, Argue got the pianist's chair and won a competition for best piano solo, which, he recalled, "inspired me to practice more." He attended McGill University, in Montreal, then entered a master's program at the New England Conservatory, in Boston, after Bob Brookmeyer—one of its professors, with whom Argue had struck up a correspondence—read some of his compositions and invited him to come study under his supervision.

Brookmeyer, who died in 2011, was a jazz legend—a valve trombonist, and a composer for some of the great modernist ensembles of the 1960s. "These were very intensive lessons," Argue recalled—"microdetailed analysis of chord-to-chord harmony and macro-level stuff about narrative, continuity, storytelling. He'd stress that everything you write has to contribute to the overall sonic effect. And rhythm has to have emotional resonance." Argue also took courses in orchestration, intensively studying the scores of 20th-century classical masters: Stravinsky, Bartók, Penderecki, Varäse.

Then there were outside influences. Radiohead's Kid A came out in those years. (There's more than a trace of Radiohead in Secret Society, just as there's more than a trace of electric-era Miles Davis in Radiohead.) So did the Bad Plus's debut album These Are the Vistas, which covered rock songs like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in startling, sophisticated ways. And there was Evanescence, the first big-band album by Maria Schneider, another Brookmeyer acolyte, which combined modal jazz, Latin rhythms, Impressionist harmonies, and, in the opening track, a ripping electric guitar solo straight out of Hendrix. "Everyone who heard that album wanted to start a big band," Argue said, still in a tone of awe.

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After finishing the master's program in 2002, he stayed in Boston—and took the Chinatown bus to New York every Tuesday for a young composers' workshop at the musicians' union headquarters on W. 57th Street. "The idea of moving to New York and starting a big band seemed completely insane," he admitted. "But I met people my age who were doing just that, and they weren't visibly homeless, yet."

Argue made the move in the fall of 2003, earned money copying scores for Broadway pit orchestras, and soon learned that the union rented out its rehearsal hall for just $10 an hour in the daytime. He cold-called some musicians and asked "Any chance of doing a read this Thursday afternoon? The music's really hard, and I can't pay you." Most of them said, "Sure."

After a year of these sessions, one of the regulars, Ingrid Jensen, a trumpeter whose personality can be as piercing as her solos, came up to Argue and asked, "So when are you getting us a gig?"

CBGB's held a Sunday-night jazz series in its basement lounge. Argue got the band its first booking on May 29, 2005. Soon after, the club lost its lease. The manager of the Bowery Poetry Club, across the street, offered his stage as a regular venue. From there, gigs started opening up—at Jazz Gallery, Union Hall, and other small clubs around the city.

Three years passed. On the night of July 9, 2008, Sarah Kirkland Snider, director of New Amsterdam Records, came to hear the band at Le Poisson Rouge, in Greenwich Village, and was floored. On the spot, she offered Argue a recording contract. The label was small, but the royalty split was appealing, and Argue would own the master tapes. He raised some money through foundation grants, went into considerable debt (he's still paying off the loans), and made Infernal Machines.

When the album came out, in fall 2009, Joseph Melillo, executive producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, commissioned Argue to do something for BAM's Next Wave Festival. Argue was intrigued with the idea of an audio-video collaboration. He found a graphic novelist, Danijel Zezelj, who draws in a fantastical urban style, and the two came up with Brooklyn Babylon, a steampunk tale about the construction of a calliope at the top of the world's tallest tower and the ensuing destruction of the surrounding neighborhood.

The hour-long concert—Argue conducting the band as Zezelj's animation flashed on a big screen—ran for four nights in November 2011, to nearly full houses. The following June, after a series of concerts in Brazil (the first of several foreign gigs), Secret Society recorded Brooklyn Babylon at Avatar Studios, in midtown Manhattan, over the course of three 12-hour days (the album was released at the end of April 2013). Soon after, they played the Newport Jazz Festival. At the end of the summer, at the River-to-River Festival, in Lower Manhattan, they joined forces with Escort, a 17-piece Brooklyn-based disco band. Argue wrote a new piece for the event. He described it as "the product of the kind of 'What would it sound like if . . .' scenarios that keep me up at night"—in this case, what it would sound like if you pushed Off the Wall–era Michael Jackson through the complex metric system of Argentinean jazz composer Guillermo Klein.

It wasn't your father's jazz-rock fusion. "You hear a lot of musicians who try to bring in elements outside of jazz—rock, folk, classical—and so often, the results are terrible, really lame," Argue said. "I want to ask these people, 'Have you ever been to a rock concert? Do you know what a rock rhythm section does?' You have to create a synthesis, and you have to find the essence of each element. There's this prejudice that rock is easy. But spend the hours it takes to check out really good rock. Transcribe it. See how the rhythms line up, what's going on with the bass lines, the drumming. If you take it seriously, it's hard."

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COMMENTS
Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

Talent shows, even when it challenges you preconceptions.  The worst thing you can tell an artist is that they're boring.  Whatever your opinion - for honest musical reasons, rather than it's simply not your tribe's music - this music is not boring.  It dares you to love it or hate it.  And that, is about the finest thing an artist can do.  (Incidentally, if you've ever read or seen interviews with great musicians, from any genre, they freely admit influences from and admiration for surprisingly disparate artists.)

I started to list the influences I heard.  I gave up; the list is too long.  It's quite a feat to pull off a new hybrid without resorting to pastiche.  Although it may not seem like a compliment, my initial reaction was that it's like movie music.  But, music for a SERIOUS movie; one that invades your dreams that night and that you're still thinking about next day.

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