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First Listen: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, 'Brooklyn Babylon'

NPR icon by Patrick Jarenwattananon
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Lindsay Beyerstein

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The composer Darcy James Argue has a little bit of the archetypal indie rocker in him. He's a white guy from Canada who moved to Brooklyn and started a band there. His new album is filled with deliberate suggestions of dance-punk; of Eastern European brass bands and carnival music; of the piano riff in LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends." It's about gentrification. There's an animated projection that goes with it.

But Argue's medium of choice is the big band — the standard large jazz ensemble with trumpets, trombones, saxophones, that sort of thing. He has his own anachronistic orchestra, called Secret Society. The fact that he's able to do this in 2013 says something about how hard he works at it, and how interesting the results are. Eighteen standing members — including world-class soloists like John Ellis, Ryan Keberle and Ingrid Jensen — and a long list of substitutes seem to think so, anyway.

Any big-band composer spends time dealing with a certain jazz tradition of how Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Thad Jones had orchestras before them. If you've ever read any of his writing, you know that Argue has spent plenty of time engaging that legacy. But this project, his second studio album, is decidedly broader than "large ensemble jazz." It was conceived in collaboration with visual artist Danijel Zezelj, who created charcoal-hued stop-motion animation telling the story of a future Brooklyn. (He also live-painted a massive 30' x 4' cityscape during the premiere of this music.) The story follows a master Brooklyn carpenter contracted to build a carousel atop a new tower, set to be the tallest in the world, as his professional aims and neighborhood loyalty find themselves at odds.

That makes Brooklyn Babylon something of a soundtrack, though it stands alone better than your average score. For all the layers-upon-layers of classical minimalism, or noisy squalls, or powerful solo turns, it never feels like a pop quiz in musical vocabulary. Motives repeat, build, tessellate; a wooden flute or an electrified trumpet always feels purposeful. The whole thing, as many-tentacled as words make it seem, coheres.

The visual element of Brooklyn Babylon brings all this out. Zezelj's language — its severe angles, its black-and-white monochromatic look — suggests a metropolis reminiscent of both early-20th-century New York and a bordering-on-dystopian future. There's humanity there, though, in seething masses and individual pathos pushing up through the cracks. A modern big band like this one can do grim, and it can do overwhelming, and it can do it in ways you'll "get" even if you haven't listened to a jazz record in your life. But it's powered in the old-fashioned way of bodies pushing air through bores and sticks unto cymbals, and the exuberance therein is never far away.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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