Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: Real Enemies
It's telling that Brooklyn-based composer-bandleader Darcy James Argue didn't use something as time-honoured as Big Band to name his ensemble, such a term bringing with it expectations established by the large-scale groups of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Maria Schneider. Given the degree to which Argue's Real Enemies material has to do with themes of subterfuge, surveillance, espionage, conspiracy, and media control, it's wholly fitting that his eighteen-member outfit would go by the name Secret Society.
Further to that, any Big Band associations as traditionally known would be inconsistent with the styles Secret Society traffics in on this seventy-nine-minute opus. Leagues removed from the jazz foundation those aforementioned artists build upon with their groups, Real Enemies opts for rock, funk, hip-hop, Latin, and crime film soundtracks as reference points; though the album does weave soloing into its thirteen chapters, it has precious little to do with jazz per se. Scores by Michael Small (The Parallax View) and David Shire (All The President's Men) are cited as touchstones, but Lalo Schifrin should also be mentioned, given the music he wrote for Bullitt and Mission: Impossible (the TV series). Argue also drew on classical music for the score, specifically twelve-tone techniques devised by Schoenberg in the early part of the 20th century. Comprising five woodwind players, nine horn players, a keyboardist, guitarist, bassist, and percussionist, Secret Society adheres carefully to Argue's writing yet also plays with a looseness characteristic of musicians as comfortable soloing as following a notated score.
Real Enemies possesses the character of a full-concert work, the kind of thing one could imagine the Secret Society performing on a New York stage, as it did at BAM's Next Wave Festival in 2015. In fact, Argue, in collaboration with writer/director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini, conceived of Real Enemies, its title taken from Kathryn Olmsted's 2009 book Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11, as a multi-media production from the outset. As serious as any work dealing with issues such as terrorism, cocaine trafficking, and the like will naturally be, Argue also allows room for the wackier end of the spectrum, attested to by the photos of Heaven's Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite and a workout video model shown in the release's full-colour booklet. Yet lest anyone doubt the sincerity of Argue's thinking on the matter, statements like the following should lay that to rest: “Belief in conspiracies is one of the defining aspects of modern culture. It transcends political, economic, and other divides. Conservative or liberal, rich or poor, across all races and backgrounds there exists a conspiratorial strain of thought that believes there are forces secretly plotting against us.”
If you've read this far, you might be wondering how such themes have been worked into what one might assume would be a purely instrumental presentation: true, Real Enemies is primarily an instrumental work packed with dynamic ensemble playing and individual soloing, but it also threads samples of spoken text by figures such as Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Dick Cheney into its structure, not to mention narration by actor James Urbaniak during the penultimate “Who Do You Trust?” (the text derived from Richard Hofstadter's 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”).
After setting the scene with the foreboding overture “You Are Here,” its dark tonalities and timbres redolent of crime film soundtracks, the group, led by tenor saxist John Ellis, moves on to the smoky espionage of “The Enemy Within” and, in a startling surprise, the M-base funk of “Dark Alliance.” Two minutes into the latter, another surprise occurs when the band abruptly shifts into a robust Latin-jazz episode before returning to the synth-spiked pulse of its opening. In the tracks that follow, speaking episodes and music combine to reinforce the paranoiac unease instilled by track titles such as “Trust No One,” “The Hidden Hand,” and “Never a Straight Answer.” Speaking of which, Adam Birnbaum's electric piano and the band's free-floating accompaniment lend the latter piece a Miles-ian quality reminiscent of In a Silent Way. Soloists stand out along the way, among them alto saxist Rob Wilkerson during the militaristic “Best Friends Forever” and trombonist Mike Fahie on the irrepressibly swinging “Casus Belli,” but it's Argue's ensemble writing that stands out most of all.Real Enemies is, obviously, an ambitious work on both thematic and musical grounds that impresses as a bold musical creation. That Argue has managed to fashion the musical content in such a way that it dovetails naturally with thematic ideas about conspiracy, paranoia, and surveillance certainly speaks highly to his gifts as a conceptualist and composer, and that so many contrasting parts could be blended into something so cohesive is an accomplishment in its own right.