Buzz has a funny way of altering your perception. While I'm sure I'd caught wind of composer Darcy James Argue at some point—hard to miss an up-and-coming young musician here in Canada, after all—the infectious word of mouth that surrounded him at last year's International Association of Jazz Education conference in Toronto has erased anything that went before. The performance by the Canadian version of his big band, Secret Society—featuring an outrageously gifted trumpet section—was on the lips of everyone who caught it, and his views on digital marketing were the best illustration of the gaping divide between his generation and the establishment core of the soon-to-be-defunct IAJE. Few musicians since the initial headline-grabbing burst by Dave Douglas in the mid-'90s had become so ubiquitous as fast as this young Vancouverite.
One of the things that has set Argue apart is his willingness to share his music on his blog, yet the release of his debut CD, Infernal Machines, has been much anticipated by those who have heard him compared favourably to fellow Bob Brookmeyer devotees Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck. I've been enjoying a digital download of the recording for a few weeks, but—given that this is a big band—have been holding off on a review until I could savor it in its full depth on my main stereo rather than through my computer's speakers.
Although it's Brookmeyer who is mentioned most frequently as Argue's main influence, I hear a lot of George Russell on Infernal Machines, too, especially on "Zeno," where guitarist Sebastian Noel stirs up some power chords behind Ryan Keberle's trombone solo, and in the raucous outro to the opening "Phobos." Gil Evans' tremendous bands from his days as the house band at Sweet Basil in the '80s are another touchstone, and Argue himself swears allegiance to the early Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band in this post.
A strong trumpet section is one of Argue's MO's. Here, it's led by Seneca Black, and features Ingrid Jensen, Laurie Frink, Nadje Noordhuis and Tom Goehring. Argue's voicing of them on "Transit" and "Redeye" is feather-light and creates the feeling of flight—the only time his writing resembles Schneider's.
Where he creates his own space as a big band leader is in his use of elements not often heard in the canon, such as the cajon that chatters throughout "Phobos," the electric guitar noise that snakes through "Redeye," and the political conceit at the heart of "Habeas Corpus"—a piece written to honour Canadian computer engineer Maher Arar, who was shipped to Syria by the U.S. government and tortured for 10 months. On "Jacobin Club," the horns move woozily over Jon Wikan's rattle-trap snare and Mike Holober's spiky keyboard accents, while on "Obsidian Flow" they shimmer in a chorus of Philip Glass-like repetition. Although Argue frequently creates tension by constraining the 18-piece orchestra somewhat, he knows how to turn them loose to great effect, as he does in the climax of "Habeas Corpus."
An exciting stylist with an abundance of ideas, Argue deserves his place alongside Schneider, Hollenbeck and other contemporary big band arrangers who are looking beyond traditional notions of what a large jazz orchestra should, and can, sound like.