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‘Real Enemies’ in London

Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies is a piece for our time, unfortunately. The Canadian composer’s 90-minute suite for his Secret Society big band is a reflection of the creeping paranoia that began in the post-war years of Joe McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover and Area 51, and is once again in full spate.

Appropriate voice samples are triggered throughout the piece, but the tone is really set by DJA’s orchestrations for the instrumentation of five trumpets, four trombones, five reeds/woodwinds and four rhythm: the ensemble sonorities are hard, bright, emphatic and precise. Only the fine soloists — I particularly noted David Smith and Jonathan Powell on trumpets, Ryan Keberle on trombone, the altoists Dave Pietro and Rob Wilkerson, and the tenorist Lucas Pino — introduce a note of human vulnerability in the face of the complex workings of the busy machine.

Apart from the two women musicians (trumpeter Naadje Noordhuis and bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton), the members of his New York band wear their own suits and ties. Their expressions throughout the performance are blank, perhaps indicating only a concentration on the demanding score (I caught just one fleeting exchange of grins in the saxophone section). Whether this is an intended effect or not, it certainly enhances the atmosphere: they look like an FBI induction class, circa 1970. The composer’s brisk conducting technique never suggests emotion; the notes do that job.

At the beginning and near the end, the five trumpeters rose from their chairs en masse and stood with their backs to the audience, clustered together around the 9ft Steinway and playing down into its raised lid. Their tightly muted scribbles of sound, and their physical clustering, suggested a discussion of dark secrets: an effect both visually and musically dramatic.

Afterwards you wanted to go home and watch The Parallax View, Executive Action or Three Days of the Condor. DJA would have made a great job of scoring any of those films, which explored the subterfuges of the deep state in the early 1970s. Next, if he’s not sick of conspiracy theories, perhaps he could turn his attention to the Trump/Farage era and the influence of the Koch brothers, Steve Bannon and Breitbart, and Robert Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica.

As John Lewis pointed out in the Guardian the other day, this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival contains an unusual amount of political content, explicit and implicit. Real Enemies is one of the strongest of those statements; its specifics may be date-stamped, but its message is timeless and disturbing.

* The 2016 studio recording of Real Enemies by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society is available on the New Amsterdam label.