Jazz Standards That Aren’t: On the Debut of Secret Society’s New Album Infernal Machines

Infernal Machines 3QD friend Darcy James Argue is the creative force behind the very brilliant 18-piece steampunk contemporary bigband jazz ensemble Secret Society. (Secret Society played the second 3QD ball to our eternal delight.) Secret Society's first album Infernal Machines is about to be released by New Amsterdam Records, and we all eagerly await it. Some of the pieces can be heard here. The review in Newsweek:

Each generation tries its hand at grafting new styles onto jazz, with varying results—note Gil Evans's not-always successful use of Jimi Hendrix's music—but lately there have been some hip moves in this direction. On the small-ensemble front, Jason Moran has turned the hip-hop anthem “Planet Rock” inside out on piano, while the Bad Plus have proved they can work up a fever interpreting, by turns, the music of Nirvana and Stravinsky. But often as not, the thrills given off by these mash-ups are those of reinvention, as opposed to sui generis invention itself.

For a wholly original take on big band's past, present and future, look to Darcy James Argue, a 33-year-old Brooklynite who has composed a batch of manifestoes that draws on past legacies, and adds a little postpunk energy to boot. A onetime student of big-band visionary Bob Brookmeyer, Argue himself seems a natural product of an era in which genres can be shuffled with ease on iPod playlists. Talking with him, you go from discussing obscure Italian serialist composers to indie bands like TV on the Radio. The composer calls his music “steampunk big band,” a reference to the niche art movement that fantasizes about modern tech innovations existing in the steam-powered era. That range is reflected—and, more important, is made frictionless—on Argue's debut record, “Infernal Machines.” Argue's tunes can command your attention anywhere—no small feat in our media-saturated world. He and his 18-piece Secret Society band pull off the trick by pairing electro-influenced rhythms with fuzzed-out guitars, fearsome horns and chamber-music voicings in the woodwinds. For all this panstylistic erudition, though, Argue's music still swings hard whenever it wants. “Transit” explodes with an elaborate fire that recalls Mingus's “Let My Children Hear Music.” The song “Jacobin Club,” named after Robespierre's merry band, slinks with the sly wit of “Such Sweet Thunder”–era Ellington, proving Argue is no enemy of history. Listen on headphones, and you can hear a lot of rocklike production layering. Two thirds through “Habeas Corpus (for Maher Arar)”— a civil-rights ode that's timely in light of the Obama administration's release of Bush-era “torture memos”—the production supports its trombones, stabbing like sirens, with a guitar that chugs ominously low in the mix.

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