Leading his interviewer up to his second-floor apartment on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, Darcy James Argue, the leader of the Secret Society, a postmodern, 18-piece, big-band jazz outfit, apologized for the mess. He’d just received a new shipment of Secret Society T-shirts.
“They are all over my apartment,” he said. Mr. Argue’s flat is actually almost disappointingly neat. From his billing of his band as “steampunk” and the persona he presents on his Web site, wearing a morning suit and sporting a maniacal stare like some character from Alan Moore’s graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you half expect the apartment to look like the lair of some eccentric genius. Except for the several large open boxes spilling forth black T-shirts, it’s a typical 30-something couple’s Brooklyn apartment that he shares with his girlfriend, the journalist-blogger Lindsay Beyerstein.
That there are T-shirts there at all is already something new. Jazz musicians, unlike their rock peers, generally don’t sell merchandise. They spend years like months in their cells in the timetabled practice rooms, seeking mastery. Once they succeed, they put out their music as though it would be outre to ask for appreciation; they simply get it, or don’t. Or rather, the audiences simply get it, or they don’t.
Mr. Argue, born with an Irish name that was probably destined to appear on a marquee, has a different philosophy. He is unafraid to engage in a bit of shtick to advance his dark blend of post-rock, classical minimalism and late-20th-century big band jazz.
This helps explains why Mr. Argue, a slender 34-year-old with a prominent brow and intense brown eyes who will conduct the Secret Society at Le Poisson Rouge on July 15, has gotten a great deal of attention relatively early in his career.
He released his first album, “Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Presents Infernal Machines,” on New Amsterdam Records in May. But he has already built a fan base by luring people to his Web site, where they can read his blog, download free recordings of his live shows and learn of upcoming gigs.
The Jazz Journalists Association, whose members are not always known for celebrating artists under 40, recently showered Mr. Argue with adoration. In May, these writers nominated him as one of the year’s up-and-coming artists, the leader of one of the best large ensembles and one of the genre’s top bloggers.
“People, this is insane,” Mr. Argue responded to his readers on the blog.
He didn’t win the top honors. The JJA’s up-and-comer award went to Esperanza Spalding, a talented 24-year-old bassist-singer who recently performed at the White House and appeared in a Banana Republic ad campaign. There’s always next year; until then, Mr. Argue will have to settle for being the better artist.
It’s probably wise for the leader of the Secret Society to be a bit of a showman. It takes a tremendous amount of time to compose and arrange music for a band with five trumpeters, four trombonists, five saxophonists, a pianist, a guitarist, a bassist and a drummer. There aren’t many gigs for a group that takes up so much space. Mr. Argue has tried to increase the Secret Society’s performance schedule by not only playing jazz clubs, but also rock venues like Union Hall in Park Slope, the Bell House in Gowanus and the now defunct CBGB.
Then he must contend with the fact that most people haven’t given much thought to big bands since former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson left the stage in 1992 along with the NBC Orchestra led by the sequin-clad trumpeter Doc Severinsen in 1992.
“People walk in and they see this forest of music stands on the stage,” Mr. Argue said in an interview in a coffee shop near his apartment. “I’m standing in front of the band but I’m facing the wrong way, and I’m not singing. It is very strange and alien to people who are not already part of the jazz subculture.”
But when Mr. Argue waves his hands and the Secret Society starts to play, they quickly banish the misperception that the big band is a creature from some relative’s wedding or even a Baz Luhrmann movie musical.
Listening to the debut album, it’s clear Mr. Argue’s stew is thick with seemingly disparate influences. There is the brass-heavy post–World War II big-band writing that inspired the scores of countless television shows and movies in the 1960s and 1970s; from time to time, you almost expect to hear the siren of a squad car in hot pursuit of a suspected perpetrator on “Transit,” a vehicle for trumpeter Ingrid Jensen who contributes a fierce, lip-shredding solo.
But there are generous portions of minimalism stirred in to keep things from getting kitschy. The most stunning piece on the album is “Habeas Corpus,” in which Mr. Argue uses jabbing repetitive horn lines to create a sense of confinement inspired by the horrific experience of Maher Arar, a martyr of the Bush administration’s war on terror, who was seized at John F. Kennedy Airport in 2002, extradited to Syria and held in a tiny cell for 10 months. You won’t mistake it for the soundtrack to a Kojak episode.
Mr. Argue also employs Secret Society member Sebastian Noelle and his distorted electric guitar to give his work a post-rock edge. There is glorious moment toward the end of “Phobos” when you almost expect to hear the ghostly howl of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke over Mr. Noelle’s slashing line. It makes sense. Mr. Yorke is a big fan of jazz bassist-composer Charles Mingus, that great hurler of musical Molotov cocktails, whose spirit is also one of the infusions in the album.
This brings us to a something that is a sore point for Mr. Argue, a Canadian who came to the United States in 2000 to study composition at New England Conservatory. He laments that young intellectuals like himself, who read David Foster Wallace and go to museums, often aren’t jazz fans. They would rather listen to art rock bands like Grizzly Bear. The irony is that three of Grizzly Bear’s members are trained jazz musicians. One of them, Chris Taylor, studied saxophone with Branford Marsalis. The direction of the jazz musician of Mr. Argue’s generation who seeks to be heard is often toward smart pop music. But Mr. Argue won’t settle for that. He’d rather turn jazz around a bit.
“You see these album covers of someone smiling and holding their instrument and it’s like, ‘Oooo-kaaay,’” he said. “That tells me nothing—other than you have a nice smile or you could have picked a better photo. There is no attempt to make the music make any sense for someone who is coming to it for the first time.”
Now you can understand why Mr. Argue does so much, well, marketing. The tuxedo, the T-shirts. His Web site describes the music—something many jazz musicians wouldn’t dare. It’s an “18-piece steampunk big band that envisions an alternative musical history, one in which the dance orchestras that ruled the Swing Era never went extinct, but continued to evolve with the times, remaining a vital part of the musical landscape straight through the present day.”
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“There’s something fundamentally uncool about big bands,” Mr. Argue said. “I was trying to figure out how do I get across what I think is so awesome about having this many musicians onstage?”
And then he revealed the trick.
“I’d been reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I thought maybe the thing to do is heighten the contractions. We’re not fooling anybody. This isn’t a large ensemble. This isn’t a jazz orchestra. It’s a big band. We’re going to embrace that and then move on.”
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