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Posts tagged ‘Darcy James Argue’

‘Real Enemies’ in London

Darcy James Argue KPDarcy 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.

Winter in America


Darcy James Argue introduces Secret Society during the 2017 Winter Jazzfest in New York

“Welcome to the resistance,” Darcy James Argue said on Friday night to the packed audience at Subculture, a basement club on Bleecker Street. Then the Canadian-born, New York-based composer and bandleader  turned to his 18-piece ensemble, Secret Society, and, with deft flicks of his wrists, guided them into the opening of Real Enemies, his cycle of pieces based on the theme of state-sponsored paranoia. A few hours earlier, in another part of New York City, Donald Trump had been forced to listen to the representatives of the CIA and the FBI presenting evidence that Russia’s government and secret services had helped to get him elected as president of the United States.

“Social justice” was the theme of the event in which Argue was participating: the 2017 edition of Winter Jazzfest, the annual showcase featuring a two-day marathon of more than 150 groups at about a dozen venues centred on Greenwich Village. Different bandleaders expressed their attitude to the topic in different ways. The pianist and composer Samora Pinderhughes led his 11 musicians through an extended piece titled The Transformations Suite, a profoundly moving contemporary take on themes no less relevant than when they were explored half a century ago in Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. The Indian-American singer and harmonium player Amirtha Kidambi performed a piece inspired by the death of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officers in 2014; she announced that all proceeds from that night’s sales of the new CD by her quartet, Elder Ones, would go to the fund supporting four members of the NAACP arrested earlier in the week for protesting against Trump’s nomination for attorney general of a man who has campaigned against voting rights. The trumpeter Peter Evans called for the recognition of musicians — he gave Matana Roberts as an example — who have a record of campaigning on these issues.

Others preferred to let the music speak for itself, but there was never any doubt of the continuing role that jazz musicians have to play in exposing issues, raising consciousness, and maintaining morale in difficult times. Their inherent independence of spirit, their understanding of the need to reconcile individual and collective action, their roots in an idiom that came from suffering and exploitation, and their acceptance of the need to fight against the commercial odds make them ideally suited to the task.

To get back to the music, Argue is a young man with an intriguing approach both to personal style (he looks as though he might relax at the weekend by putting on a cravat) and to finding new solutions to the problems inherent in playing jazz with a large ensemble. Throughout the performance of Real Enemies, he used a tablet to trigger sound bites from such people as Oliver North and Dick Cheney. With Ingrid Jensen among the trumpeters and Chris Speed among the reeds, the writing contained echoes of Elmer Bernstein, Bob Graettinger and Gil Evans: lots of drama, lots of complexity, lots of variety (particularly in the instrumental colours: a grouping of piccolo, flute, two clarinets and a bass clarinet, for instance, or a trumpet lead supported by four flugelhorns). It would be an important and pathfinding work at any time, never mind now.


From left: Vuyo Sotashe, Jules Latimer, Jeremie Harris, Elena Pinderhughes, Clovis Nicolas, Lucas Pino, Riley Mulherker, Braxton Cook and Tony Lustig perform The Transformations Suite

Pinderhughes’ The Transformations Suite did not enjoy the same degree of attention when the recorded version came out last year, but it made a deep impression in the New School’s Glass Box space late on Friday night. There was nothing ironic here: the wounds of 400 years of slavery and its aftermath were allowed to bleed openly in the poems and lyrics delivered by the actor Jeremie Harris (who wrote some of the words), the wonderfully soulful South African-born singer Vuyo Solashe, and most of all by Jules Latimer, a young Juilliard drama student who took the considerable risk of acting out grief and fear without restraint. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” occasionally popped up as a leitmotif, and Pinderhughes’ lean but succulent writing for his five-piece horn section provided a platform for improvisations by his extravagantly talented 21-year-old sister Elena, who might just be on her way to becoming the finest flautist jazz has produced, the tenorist Lucas Pino, and Braxton Cook, who took the roof off the place with a roaring alto solo.


MONK’estra with John Beasley at the piano, James Genus on bass and Greg Tardy on tenor

John Beasley’s MONK’estra performed their empathetic, swinging and sometimes hiphop-tinged revisions of Thelonious Monk tunes at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Lincoln Centre on Thursday night, in front of a window with a view of Trump Tower. Luckily the arrangements and the solos — notably by the always creative tenorist Greg Tardy, the trombonists Frank Lacy and Conrad Herwig, and a guest from France, the fine harmonica player Grégoire Maret — were more than enough to divert attention away from the new epicentre of American values. And, as Beasley reminded us, Monk himself had grown up literally only a stone’s throw away, on West 63rd Street.


Mary Halvorson (left) with Jonathan Finlayson, Jon Irabagon, Ingrid Laubrock and Jacob Garchik at the New School

As impressive as anything I heard during three crowded days was the octet led by the guitarist Mary Halvorson, which features not just a bunch of great players (including the trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and the tenorist Ingrid Laubrock) but the leader’s extraordinary interplay with the pedal steel player Susan Alcom, which elevates the music to a whole different realm of texture and emotion. Halvorson’s compositions are fascinating enough in any case: sounding as though they are through-written, they have the impact of great short stories, full of surprising twists of plot and mood, never quite ending where you expect but always resolving brilliantly.

While the festival was taking place, the great jazz critic Nat Hentoff died in New York at the age of 91. Through his liner notes, his pieces for Down Beat, the Jazz Review and the Village Voice, and books such as Hear Me Talkin’ To You (co-authored with Nat Shapiro) and Jazz Is, he helped shaped the view of several generations of listeners. He was also a lifelong fighter for social justice. And in 1960, for his own short-lived label (which released classic albums by Charles Mingus and Booker Little), he produced Cecil Taylor’s sublime trio version of “This Nearly Was Mine”, which alone would earn him a place wherever the good ones go.

* All the music mentioned above is out now on CD. Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies is on the New Amsterdam label. Samora Pinderhughes’ The Transformation Suite is on Gray Area. John Beasley’s MONK’estra Vol. 1 is on Mack Avenue. The Mary Halvorson Octet’s Away With You is on Firehouse 12. “This Nearly Was Mine” is on The World of Cecil Taylor, on the Candid label.