Dec 28 2013
I shake my head each time I’m reminded that I haven’t yet reviewed this album, but when I consider all the thoughts and ideas and observations bouncing around in my cranium about this recording, it’s really no wonder at all. First off, there was the palpable excitement around the jazz scene upon the announcement that Darcy James Argue was releasing a new album. You could see it in the social media waves… the tweets, the forum posts, the blogs, the facebook comments… people were genuinely excited. This is great for Jazz on many levels. But add to the mix, Argue doesn’t actually play on his recordings… he’s composer through and through. And after the splash he made on the scene with his inventive groundbreaker Infernal Machines, that a composer could incite this kind of anticipation had me mindful of how it might’ve felt when Duke Ellington was gearing up his ensemble to record a new album.
Now, I’m not comparing Argue to Ellington… at this stage in Argue’s career, that kind of comparison would be a disservice to both artists. But Jazz has a timeless quality, an ineffable magic that makes it special to crack open, say, a brand new Columbia Records album of a recording from the 50s, sounding both fresh and vibrant in the present tense, while simultaneously transporting the listener back to the era when the music was first recorded… a feeling of being there. And with each successive generation of new jazz fans, that time travel quality of the music becomes increasingly essential, and more valuable.
So, when I listen to Duke Ellington, I imagine what it must’ve been like to be there at the time of the recording, in the studio, at the record store and seeing the new album on the shelf, listening to it on the stereo while staring out an open window that looks upon a 1950’s world. The feelings and emotions and thoughts that result from that type of exercise in sonic-driven imagination, they come damn close to what I was feeling when I saw the announcement of the new Argue recording. I know for a fact that I wasn’t alone.
Of the many characteristics that define jazz, one of those is the intelligence that the musicians bring to the table. There is a level of artistry and craft that can’t be denied, and does it get much more into the blood of the genre than when an artist dedicates himself solely to the formation of that music, of utilizing the pen as their instrument of choice? There is something eminently artistic about that course of action, a grace to be found in the isolation of a task that is connected to everything, that which focuses on the building blocks of creativity.
When Infernal Machines came out in 2009, it resonated throughout the music world. Argue’s mix of traditional and modern jazz orchestra approaches, further blended with rock qualities, was a potent expression of forward-thinking music that echoed heavily of music of the past. It attracted both old- and new-schoolers alike. It did right by both of those camps. That it was nominated for a Grammy only furthered to enhance Argue’s mystique. The Grammy voters, unfortunately, make some oblivious choices when it comes to the Jazz categories. This was an instance where they got it right, in a scenario that, historically, they would have gotten wrong.
Argue’s newest, Brooklyn Babylon, is one aspect of a collaboration with visual artist Danijel Zezelj, who provided the narrative for this project, and the animation and live painting that accompanied Argue’s music in the live performance. It’s a New York story, of a timeless nature in a timeless town, where a carpenter and the construction of the world’s tallest building sit as the focal point of past vs. future, self vs. community, pragmatism vs. dreams.
The music swoons with the euphoric joy of a classic jazz orchestra sound, and it’s built with an architecture that sings of the present day and off into the future. Argue’s compositions have a narrative of their own, paralleling the story’s plot line, of character development and conflicts and resolutions. His 18-piece big band are a lesson in the power of numbers sounding bigger and greater than their individual parts. They breathe the stuff of car chase scenes, they purr with the distinctive serenity of a city that pauses, momentarily, to rest. The music has sudden stops, breathtaking rises and descents in elevation, a lyricism that isn’t afraid of risk in the pursuit of the epic, and an unrelenting harmonic warmth.
This music is Big.
That it dares to be big, that it is all feeling, that it is all thought, that it is full of wild abandon, that it is shaped with methodical calculations, that it tells a story within a story that is also distinct on its own, that it feeds off the creative inspiration of others while simultaneously feeding that source, that it continues to reveal aspects of itself long after the initial listen, and that generates an excitement of Event… these are the qualities that define this excellent recording and these are the attributes that mark the artists who contribute to this project.
Your album personnel: Darcy James Argue (composer, conductor), Erica von Kleist (piccolo, flute, alto flute, soprano sax, alto sax, electronics), Rob Wilkerson (flute, clarinet, soprano sax, alto sax), Sam Sadigursky (clarinet, tenor sax), John Ellis (clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor sax), Josh Sinton (clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, baritone sax), Seneca Black (trumpet, flugelhorn), Tom Goehring (trumpet, flugelhorn), Matt Holman (trumpet, flugelhorn), Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet, flugelhorn), Ingrid Jensen (trumpet, flugelhorn, electronics), Mike Fahie (euphonium, trombone), Ryan Keberle (trombone), James Hirschfeld (trombone, tuba), Jennifer Wharton (bass trombone, tuba), Sebastian Noelle (acoustic & electric guitar), Gordon Webster (acoustic & electric piano, melodica), Matt Clohesy (contrabass & electric bass), and Jon Wikan (drum set, tapan, surdo, cajón, shaker, tambourine, misc. percussion).
Released on New Amsterdam Records.
Jazz from NYC.