The Four States NPR News Source
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Argue's Secret Society produces 'Maximum Tension' on a lively new album

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Composer Darcy James Argue grew up in Canada and studied in Boston before moving to New York, where he formed his big band, The Secret Society, in 2005. The band earned high praise from critics and has performed in many high-profile showcases. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says their new album is sure to spread the word.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARCY JAMES ARGUE'S SECRET SOCIETY'S "YOUR ENEMIES ARE ASLEEP")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society on "Your Enemies Are Asleep," adapted from an old Ukrainian tune, "In Solidarity." The title of the band's? New - double album, "Dynamic Maximum Tension," references 20th century futurist designer Buckminster Fuller and also the old Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension bodybuilder course. Argue runs a jazz big band, an institution from the last century, but imagines its sound as if big bands hadn't faded away but stayed current. His sleek constructions have well-toned, muscular parts - Bucky Fuller meets Charles Atlas.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARCY JAMES ARGUE'S SECRET SOCIETY'S "CODEBREAKER")

WHITEHEAD: Darcy James Argue has worked hard to promote his Secret Society, branding its style as steampunk back when that was a thing, and now tapping Cecile McLorin Salvant to sing a rather cutesy number on the new album. "Dynamic Maximum Tension" on Nonesuch is their first for a major label, which says it all about the commercial viability of modern big bands, even one hailed for its post-rock, post-hip-hop grooving. This isn't Woody Herman playing "Proud Mary."

(SOUNDBITE OF DARCY JAMES ARGUE'S SECRET SOCIETY'S "ALL IN")

WHITEHEAD: For all the modern touches, Darcy James Argue lets you hear what he inherits. The way he'll suspend a complex superstructure over a syncopated bass lick is straight out of Gil Evans' "Time Of The Barracudas." And Argue's cushy chord voicings nod to his mentor, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, whose orchestrations also demonstrated the virtues of restraint, of holding a band back. This is from Argue's tribute to Brookmeyer, "Winged Beasts." Ryan Keberle is on trombone, Jon Wikan on drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARCY JAMES ARGUE'S SECRET SOCIETY'S "WINGED BEASTS")

WHITEHEAD: Darcy James Argue's ballad "Last Waltz For Levon" salutes the singing drummer with the band The Band, Levon Helm. It alludes a few ways to Levon's signature song, "The Night We Drove Old Dixie Down" (ph), not least in Matt Clohesy's electric bass part. His solo just hints at Rick Danko's tuba-like bass with The Band, laying groundwork for a fancy showcase quotation near the end. It's striking, but there's a catch. When you evoke a classic tune, your new melody has to withstand comparison.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARCY JAMES ARGUE'S SECRET SOCIETY'S "LAST WALTZ FOR LEVON")

WHITEHEAD: And listening to Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, I'm impressed by the music's clarity, textural contrast and shiny surfaces, his ingenuity and lively rhythms, impeccable ensemble playing and fine soloists like trumpeters Ingrid Jensen and Matt Holman. I confess I often find Argue's bass parts more memorable than his melodies, but his music has so much else going for it, it's still quite OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARCY JAMES ARGUE'S SECRET SOCIETY'S "WINGED BEASTS")

MOSLEY: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the books "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film," "Why Jazz?" and "New Dutch Swing." He reviewed Darcy James Argue's Secret Society's new album, "Dynamic Maximum Tension." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of recent interviews, like with filmmaker Werner Herzog, actor Greta Lee and McKay Coppins, the author of a new book about Mitt Romney. Listen to FRESH AIR wherever you get your podcasts. And to keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARCY JAMES ARGUE'S SECRET SOCIETY'S "WINGED BEASTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Whitehead
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.