Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: Brooklyn Babylon
Though Brooklyn-based composer-conductor Darcy James Argue's Brooklyn Babylon draws upon multiple styles, both long-established and recent, the album fits squarely within the big band jazz tradition whose spirit is most indelibly associated with Duke Ellington's Orchestra, even if large ensembles led by Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, Wynton Marsalis, and Maria Schneider in the post-Ellington era also serve as precursors to Argue's eighteen-piece band. Ellington's compositions, of course, are as admired for the brilliance of the writing as they are for granting soloists such as Johnny Hodges, Ray Nance, and Harry Carney opportunities to leave their own indelible stamps on Duke's music. Argue's work perpetuates that tradition by granting ample solo space to Secret Society members like tenor saxists John Ellis and Sam Sadigursky, trumpeters Matt Holman and Ingrid Jensen, trombonists Ryan Keberle and James Hirschfeld, pianist Gordon Webster, and guitarist Sebastian Noelle. Admittedly, Argue's soloists don't make as strong an impression as Ellington's, although it should also be noted that the playing on Brooklyn Babylon is at a uniformly and consistently high level.
A dynamic work of broad emotional range, Argue's follow-up to his Grammy-nominated debut, Infernal Machines (2009) is, in fact, a collaboration of sorts, with Brooklyn Babylon rooted in a narrative by Croatian-born visual artist Danijel Zezelj that involves a plan to erect the tallest tower in the world in Brooklyn; apparently, Babilon, a limited-edition graphic novel treatment by Zezelj, is also being prepared as a visual complement to the recording. The action-packed and high-energy music never sits in any one place for too long, with seventeen pieces featured in the fifty-three-minute work. The novelistic conception is borne out by the structural design, which includes a prologue, eight chapters, seven interludes, and an epilogue. There's an oft-programmatic quality to the work, too, with a brooding setting like “The Tallest Tower in the World” exuding a dramatic and epic tone and a suitably wild, free jazz-inflected spirit underpinning “Builders.” Brooklyn Babylon itself feels methodically constructed, architectural even, which is again in keeping with the album's theme.
The Brooklyn setting is directly invoked in field recordings of the borough (captured by Argue on his portable digital recorder) that introduce “Prologue,” while the ghost of Ellington surfaces in the horn-driven rambunction that follows immediately thereafter; the ethnic diversity of the locale emerges in the Balkan folk music touches that also appear in the robust opener. A similar evocative quality emerges during “Interlude #3: Enthrall” due to Webster's melodica. Adding to the work's appeal, Argue fashions the interludes so that their stripped-down presentation offers a stark contrast to the more ambitious arrangement of a chapter track such as “Missing Parts.” Myriad styles thread their way into the material, and Argue's music is wide-ranging enough to allow room for James Brown and Steve Reich. Reich-styled minimalism, for instance, is clearly referenced in the percussive and woodwind patterns that send “The Neighborhood” on its way, while one also hears traces of Reich's counterpoint pieces sneaking into “Missing Parts.” However, such influences infuse rather than dominate Argue's sound-world and thus enrich an already fertile musical conception.