Darcy James Argue's Brooklyn Babylon

Photo: James Matthew Daniel

Darcy James Argue has one of the most original big-band sounds in recent years. His 2009 CD, Infernal Machines, may be the most promising jazz debut of the decade. But his world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this week—an hour-long suite, accompanying a mix of animation and live painting by graphic-novel artist Danijel Zezelj, called Brooklyn Babylon—puts the composer and his 18-piece big band, Secret Society, on the verge of a quantum leap.

It's an odd multimedia show that doesn't quite hang together in ways you expect but somehow does in the end anyway. Zezelj's drawing style resembles a Ben Katchor urban comic book channeled through Braque, Leger, Lang's Metropolis, pinhole photography, and a little bit of Dali.

Argue describes his music as "steampunk big band," which goes for Zezelj's story and style, too—a futurist tale, as if prophesied at various times in the past (chiefly the 1920s and '50s), about the construction of the world's largest tower in a humble Brooklyn neighborhood and the immigrant, Zev Bezdomni (the last name means "without a home" in Russian), who's lured to erect a calliope at its peak, destroying his surroundings in the process.

But this accounting makes the piece sound grimmer, and more prosaic, than it is. The narrative is elusive; it's more about the swirl and slash of the images; it has the flickering feel of a dream. (Here is a bit of a sense of it.)

All through the piece, the visuals are projected on a wide movie screen, while Zezelj himself is up on the stage, periodically drawing a beautiful landscape that takes in the whole tableaux of the story. Then at the end, he paints over it with a dark wash, as if...as if what? . . . to mark the destruction of the otherworld's era, to awaken from the dream? It's not clear, but the sense of loss and regret is deeply moving.

Meanwhile, Argue's music exudes that fusion of propulsive rhythm, indigo dissonance, melancholic minor intervals, and boisterous march beat—sometimes alternately, sometimes buckling up against each other—that we've heard in his earlier work. But here he shows a flair for theatricality, a promise of near-symphonic stretching.

I stress "promise" in that last sentence. There are passages of waywardness, the evocations are uneven, but there's power here and drama and intrigue, and I look forward to everything he and his band do. Meanwhile, maybe someone can put this out on DVD?

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