Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society: Dynamic Maximum Tension

By Stuart Nicholson for Jazzwise


Secret Society, says the sleeve notes, make music that is topical and unabashedly political. Well, thank goodness someone is. Railing against authoritarianism and disinformation, this music has an edge. A heady elixir of the past, the present and an imagined future, it maintains a right to surprise. And does.

The century-old big band tradition stands behind it, a database that binds together contemporary inspiration, accumulated truths and wisdom and the explicable and inexplicable. Thus ‘Single-Cell Jitterbug’ toys with the notion of Buckminster Fuller jitterbugging at the Savoy Ballroom to Cab Calloway’s orchestra (albeit Calloway was more likely to have been found at the Cotton Club).

Similarly, imaginative imagery stands behind other compositions on this two-CD set that seem to suggest mood rather than programmatic events. Yet the means used to inspire this music are less important than what the music achieves: a strong and vital voice where musical excellence is used to create and shape music of enduring value that creates its own unique niche in jazz today.

Jazzwise spoke to Darcy James Argue about the album

In 2009, I saw Secret Society at Moers and after a standing ovation from the audience I wrote that it was only a matter of time before the band was recognised as a leader in its field… what took you so long?

Well, just as you imply, it was only a matter of time! After that Moers performance – which I remember very well – Secret Society has gone on to perform all over the world, including storied festivals like Newport, Chicago, London, Montreal, and North Sea. It’s always a thrill to introduce the band to new audiences, and that’s exactly what we hope this latest release will help us do.

Figures such as Buckminster Fuller (‘Dymaxion’), Alan Turing (‘Codebreaker’), and Mae West (‘Advice’) are suggestive of a programmatic element in your writing, which is of course subjective, but your ensemble writing has a “big screen” quality that suggest soundtracks in search of films. Is this an area which has interested or influenced you?

Music and cinema are both temporal arts, and I’ve always been interested in the strategies they each use to create narrative. What does the listener need to know, and when do they need to know it? Ellington is of course the master of this, from the inverted arch form of ‘Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue’ to the surprising, but retrospectively satisfying, transitions of ‘The Tattooed Bride.’ They’re like a good twist in a detective picture. Jazz could use more good twists.

Several compositions have a strong backbeat. Is this to put clear blue water from earlier, or older, swing-orientated ensembles?

Jazz musicians (including Thad and Mel, and Gil Evans, and even Ellington) have been using rock beats for as long as there have been rock beats. At this point, rock and funk are just as much a part of the jazz tradition as bossa nova and salsa – they’re all part of our rhythmic lingua franca.

In 2009 you were fresh from periods of study with Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider. Subsequently, where have your studies taken you?

I feel like the music on Dynamic Maximum Tension engages with the arc of big band history in a way that I’m not sure I could have pulled off as a younger composer. I can’t tell you how many articles have been written about Secret Society headlined something like, “Not Your Grandfather’s Big Band!” But I mean… if your grandfather’s big bands were Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford, and Billy Eckstine, then he was into some pretty hip stuff! So whether it’s the Ellington and Calloway tributes (‘Tensile Curves’ and ‘Single-Cell Jitterbug,’ respectively) the Strayhornian harmonies of ‘Mae West: Advice,’ or the slow, deep blues of “Your Enemies are Asleep,” I feel I’ve come to a point in my journey where I’m much better equipped to draw from the past and, I hope, make people see it anew.