Jazz Review: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society Lights Up the Future of Jazz at Newport 2014 (But Who Will Pay the Bills?)

The jazz of tomorrow is in gifted hands. The future of the music business is more up for grabs.


Darcy James Argue at the Newport Jazz Festival. Photo: Donna Wong.

By Milo Miles

Dropped by the Newport Jazz Festival 2014 on Friday, August 1st, the 60th anniversary of this most venerable celebration of America’s first original music. The initial day of shows at Fort Adams was dedicated to new ideas and fresh sounds, and judging from the three performances we attended, the jazz of tomorrow is in gifted hands. The future of the music business is more up for grabs.

On the vast Ertegun Fort Stage, Darcy James Argue’s 18-member big band Secret Society performed the America premier of “Tensile Curves,” a piece co-commissioned by the Newport Jazz Festival and the Hard Rubber Orchestra of Vancouver B.C. (Argue’s home town). That made a gratifying climax to a set of the Secret Society’s most diverse and fascinating numbers to date, all of it so far unrecorded (quipped Argue, “after the show you can buy CDs with none of this material on them”). The group has appeared every other year at Newport since 2010.

I thought “Tensile Curves” might be a huge piece that would take up the whole show and so I was surprised that the opening passages of the first number sounded so slithery and secretive — far more ominous than expected. The main riff drifted in on Miles Okazaki’s limpid, cold-springwater guitar notes. It was almost a relief when Argue explained the smokey, spooky workout was in fact “Ferromagnetic,” dedicated to the founder of the dirty-tricks mercenary group Blackwater and a comment on all the secret ops of the last decade. (Argue later told me it was one of the earlier Secret Society compositions, dating back to 2006.)

Two eulogies offered reflective, cleverly celebratory farewells. The first was “All In,” dedicated to the longtime teacher and trumpeter with a fondness for big bands, Laurie Frink, who had played on the first Secret Society album. The second was the show’s encore piece, “Last Waltz for Levon,” dedicated to the late drummer for the Band and a piece commissioned by Copenhagen’s Danish Radio Big Band, where Argue will have a six-week residency this fall. The quotes from Helms’s songs as well as echoes from his Memphis/New Orleans rock and soul came thick and fast enough to artfully turn the number into a sedate-second-line sendoff.

Secret Society filled out the set with a number dedicated to a person and the Newport commission, dedicated to, well, a concept. It’s a tribute to Argue’s compositional skill that both had complete personalities. The person was the brilliant, tragic Alan Turing, in a number with the perfect title, “Codbreaker” (which Turing was both as a WWII intelligence agent and in his gay sex life), a thicket of passages that risked being coolly brainy even as the tones and tempos gradually grew more hushed and somber.

“Tensile Curves: itself showed how much Argue’s Secret Society has learned from but gone beyond models like Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider. Argue’s players are bolder at keeping diverse currents running at the same time. The inspiration for the number was a 12-tone row derived from a lick in Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo in Blue.” A more obvious reference to that earlier work came with tenor saxophonist John Ellins’s jagged workout toward the end of the piece, a clear evocation of the epic Paul Gonsalves solo in “Diminuendo” that caused a joyous, mass freakout at Newport in 1956. But the show’s single most boundless, piercing solo phrases and ideas burst from the trumpet of Ingrid Jensen. As Argue noted to me later, “even today, women who play brass in big bands can feel they have something to prove.” Even more to the point, perhaps, he noted that the Secret Society is becoming “more and more like a big family” — Jensen’s husband, Jon Wikan, is the drummer.


Darcy James Argue conducting Secret Society at the Newport Jazz Festival. Photo: Donna Wong.

The two other shows were also full of bright ideas. Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa premiered his Charlie Parker Project, which is not covers, but originals based on melodies or solos originated by Parker. What was particularly appealing was that Mahanthappa drew on not just the bottomless lyricism of Parker’s blues, but the headlong mania, the precision at full throttle, of his uptempo solos. Parker was startling, overwhelming, in ways not often recalled these days. Flying very high in the (relatively) calmer Dizzy Gillespie spot was 20-year-old trumpeter Adam O’Farrill.

Mahanthappa couldn’t match the multifaceted, hyperdrive brashness of John Zorn’s Masada Marathon — who could? — which consisted of nine bands drawing on Zorn’s “Masada” compositions in a two-and-a-half hour marathon consisting of two or three numbers each. The original Masada group, featuring trumpeter Dave Douglas as well as Zorn, set the pattern and the Electric Masada incarnation featuring guitarist Marc Ribot was the only possible set-closer. In between I was thrilled to see a Masada outfit close to my heart, percussionist Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits, which was an undeniable, cheering-crowd favorite. Zorn was displeased, however, that the audience did not sufficiently recognize Abraxas — Masada brain-rippers who concentrate on distorted electric guitars and amplified ngoni. “That was a pretty lame welcome for this terrific outfit!” he barked. And at the end of their set he underscored the sentiment with “I listen to players for five or six years before I sign them, but when I do it’s a lifetime hitch! Ya hear that? A lifetime hitch!”

Zorn’s remarks sound like the cry of defiance he intends them to be. I’m sure he regards his Tzadik label as a kind of Island of Dr. Moreau in the shallow, timid seas of the music industry. Manhanthappa’s Charlie Parker Project will appear on ACT Music & Vision, a small German label. Darcy James Argue, running his own operation entirely, told me about the years of planning, persuading and preparation required to simply rehearse and tour with a big band these days, let alone set up and assure quality recordings. Once upon a time, the Secret Society would be solidly ensconced on, say, the Arista Freedom label. Although even that operation is no more than a distant memory.

The Providence Journal reported ticket sales at Newport “around 18,300,” about 12,000 short of a sellout and harmed by heavy rain on Saturday. Dedicated, visionary promoters like George Wein are more important in establishing a jazz pantheon than ever. Given how the Newport legacy has lurched and wobbled when the 88-year-old captain was not at the helm in recent times, one wonders who will present the future when he is past.

Milo Miles has reviewed world-music and American-roots music for “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” since 1989. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix. Milo is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, and he also written about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. His blog about pop culture and more is Miles To Go.

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