Most jazz musicians, asked about the defining concerts in their careers, will name a prestigious venue or heralded festival. For Darcy James Argue’s Grammy- and Juno-nominated big band Secret Society, old-school adulation is all very well, but the sweat, grunge and intimacy more common to indie rock has given them a vision of the future of jazz.
The Vancouver-born Argue recalls a revelatory gig in the basement of a house of twentysomethings living communally in D.C. His 18-piece band was “playing acoustically, without a PA, for kids who had never heard of us. The musicians came up to me afterwards and said, ‘We’re losing our shirts, but it’s so great to have a direct connection to an audience that had no idea what to expect.’ That’s what you live for—to have your music be memorable in someone’s life.”
Certainly Argue isn’t in it for the money. Over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, the 36-year-old conductor and composer says, “There are few things that would be more financially irresponsible than running a big band—like maybe a serious gambling addiction.” The Secret Society is about turning heads rather than emptying wallets, and their forward-thinking music has earned them a raft of awards—and now the chance to tour Canada for the first time this summer.
The band’s very existence is improbable. In 2003, the McGill jazz program graduate moved to New York City and cold-called a number of musicians to see if they wanted to rehearse difficult music for no money. Most of them said yes. It wasn’t just that Argue offered a challenge—he also had a compelling idea. Inspired by creative anachronisms in the writings of Thomas Pynchon and graphic novelist Alan Moore, he dreamed up an alternate “steampunk” history where the big band survived the amplification era. If such bands had backed up David Bowie on Heroes and Michael Jackson on Thriller, and thrived in the age of electronics, what would their music sound like now?
The answer is found on Infernal Machines, Secret Society’s debut album, released in 2009 and distributed across North America this year by Naxos. The band melds the harmonies and syncopation (if rarely the straight-ahead swing) of jazz with the sound processing and complex beats of electronic music, the atmosphere and expansiveness of film music, and the intensity of adventurous rock.
Where typical big band records feature a succession of soloists on each tune, Argue tends to pit one instrumentalist per track against the rest of the band, with the improviser “fighting” what the conductor calls the “predetermined narrative” of the composition. Despite being tricky to play, the music has an immediacy that’s uncommon in so-called “avant-garde” jazz.
According to Argue, the best way to take in the music is live. And while he’d love for the band to be able to “hop in a van and play little rock clubs all over North America, unfortunately that model is not available to us.” In order to make the Secret Society’s Canadian tour happen, Argue “pleaded” with jazz festival directors, secured funding through grants, and managed to clear the schedules of all his musicians, four of whom are Canadian, during a busy time of year for jazz.
In the U.S., the band’s association with wunderkind promoter Adam Schatz (who set up the basement gig) has helped them tap into the indie rock audiences that have made Brooklyn a happening scene. “It’s street-level excitement that’s really going to help invigorate jazz and make it something that has some spark,” says Argue. “You don’t build it by making it into an ‘eat-your-vegetables’ cultural outing.”
Argue won’t deny that in a sense he’s a throwback. He showed up to last year’s Juno Awards (where Infernal Machines was nominated for Contemporary Jazz Album) in neo-Victorian steampunk regalia, assembled “through the thrift stores of Astoria.” It’s all part of taking “something from the past and hanging a lampshade on it,” he offers. “We’re a jazz big band, and those stopped being cool 80 years ago. We’re gonna embrace that and move forward.”