Darcy James Argue Interview, NYC

By Filipe Freitas

Darcy James Argue ©Lindsay Beyerstein

Darcy James Argue ©Lindsay Beyerstein

Name: Darcy James Argue
Instrument: composer/conductor/arranger
Style: contemporary jazz
Album Highlights: Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam, 2009), Brooklyn Babylon (New Amsterdam, 2013), Real Enemies (New Amsterdam, 2016)

How excited are you with the Azores and AngraJazz Festival?
I’m very excited about this performance in the Azores. This is a part of the world that I’ve never seen. Some of the musicians of Secret Society have never even heard about it — it’s such a remote location! I’ll be sticking around one day after the performance to explore Terceira Island — I’m very excited.

I know you are sort of connected to Portugal since you’ve been working with Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos.
Yes, I worked with Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos a few years ago and we performed also last year at the Guimarães Jazz Festival. Those were tremendous experiences. I love Portugal and I love the audiences there. Taking Secret Society to AngraJazz, it will mark the third time I’m involved in a project in Portugal.

What should the audience expect from Secret Society at AngraJazz? Are you guys drawing exclusively from the latest album Real Enemies?
No. When we played in Guimarães, we actually performed all 13 chapters of Real Enemies, from beginning to end, a concert version of that project. I realized that anyone who went to see us last year at Guimarães might go see us again at AngraJazz, so I thought it would be better to present a different program. I understand this is a different kind of festival, so we’re playing a different kind of program. It will be music drawn from all three of our previous recordings: Real Enemies, Brooklyn Babylon and Infernal Machines, and some unrecorded work, including a piece that was recently commissioned by the New England Conservatory for its 150th anniversary. They asked me to write a piece honoring my compositional mentor, Bob Brookmeyer. The piece, called “Wingèd Beasts”, was premiered with the New England Conservatory Jazz Orchestra, and Secret Society has also performed it a couple of times since then. AngraJazz will be next.

On your album Real Enemies you addressed a set of conspiracy theories, alerting the world for deceit, mistrust, and fear. Two years have passed since the album's release and some things have changed. How do you see the world today?
You know, it’s interesting. The project premiered as a multimedia work in November of 2015 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. So at that time that we wrote it, my co-creators and I were skeptical: Is this going to be relevant? Is anyone going to be interested in conspiracy theories and political paranoia used as a weapon? Is anyone going to be interested in how people in power exploit conspiratorial thinking to divide the people? Unfortunately, it has turned out that those questions have become very, very salient right now. I guess it was predictive in certain ways about the direction our politics would take. So, it obviously feels very different to perform that music today. I hope that we can push back these disturbing global trends, the rise of far-right, anti-immigration, paranoid politics all over the world.

What about the music business? Are you happy with it?
I don’t think anyone is! It’s very hard, you know. There have been an enormous number of changes all over. I don’t know if you heard that the Danish broadcasting radio just canceled their jazz station, which also affects the Danish Radio Big Band. It has been such a cultural institution, both the band and the radio station, and to have the current right-wing government cut jazz broadcasts entirely is just a real blow to that nation. And we’re seeing similar dynamics all over. In the US, jazz radio and other cultural institutions are really struggling. Some people feel it doesn’t matter, because instead of radio, nowadays people listen to Spotify and other streaming options. I’m a sort of an old-school person, and I think that radio, word of mouth, and live concerts are still the best ways to build your audience. Especially in a live performance, this can be really transformative. Secret Society just made our debut at the Chicago Jazz Festival a couple of weeks ago, and we had such an incredibly responsive audience! So many people came to me after the gig saying: “I had no idea who you were but that was amazing! It was such a tremendous concert!” Being able to connect with people, live, who had never heard the band before is an amazing opportunity for us. We hope it continues happening!

What are the main challenges of conducting an 18-piece big band?
Beyond the economic challenges of getting that many people on the road, the musical challenges are… well, you know, you have 18 very different personalities, and as a composer and as a conductor, you’ve got to find ways to include everyone’s individual skills, but in a way that creates a collective purpose, in a way where everyone is able to contribute toward the whole. But when things go wrong? (laughs) Well, as a conductor it is your job to try to keep things flowing in the right direction as best as you can. That’s the excitement of conducting the band.

What do you first seek in a musician before you hire them?
If one of my regular co-conspirators in Secret Society is unavailable for a rehearsal or performance, it gives me the opportunity to ask someone from the New York jazz community to join us for a rehearsal and see how they do. It’s not an easy thing because the music is very challenging. Often, the musicians are working extremely hard, but that work is invisible! If all goes well, it just sounds very natural, and even the most difficult passages sound easy and effortless. So, it requires a very selfless type of musician to be involved in something like that. It’s not for everyone! There are a lot of great musicians who are more interested in projects that give them a lot more liberty and room for improvisation, where the structure of the piece might be variable and moving in different directions. I love that music, it’s great, but that’s not what I really do with Secret Society, which is much more compositional. So I look for musicians well adapted to reading and interpreting notated music and who are willing to come on board to help deliver the kind of compositional narrative that I’m trying to construct. Not every musician wants that! But I’ve been very fortunate in having great musicians respond to that, who are very engaged and excited to be part of it. María Grand is a wonderful young tenor saxophone player who has just released a brilliant debut album, Magdalena. She will be joining us for the first time at AngraJazz - we have inducted her as a co-conspirator!

Which are your 3 favorite big band records?
You realize that this is an impossible question? (laughs) But... I’m going to say Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder. I’m going to cheat a bit and use a box-set of five CDs, The Complete Solid State Recordings of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. The last one… it’s really hard... but I would say Kenny Wheeler’s Music For Large & Small Ensembles.

Who influenced you the most in your career?
Certainly, Bob Brookmeyer was the biggest influence on me. I wouldn’t be the composer I am today if it weren’t for Bob.

Any new project at the moment?
Before leaving for AngraJazz, literally a week before, I’ll be premiering this big new collaboration with the amazing singer Cécile McLorin Salvant. She has written an original song cycle called Ogresse, which is really a tremendous piece of music. I’ve orchestrated this song cycle for a chamber ensemble with two winds, two brass, mallet percussion, rhythm section, and string quartet. It’s been a real pleasure to work with Cécile on this and to work with a different group of musicians, most of whom I haven’t worked with before. It’s a whole new, almost symphonic palate, and a whole new set of personalities. With an arranging project like this, I’m really trying to serve Cécile’s songs and guarantee her intentions. I tried to be as true as possible to her vision by bringing out what each individual song in the cycle wants to be. It’s a rewarding experience for me as an arranger because it forces me to think about the music from the perspective of another composer. Cécile is such an incredible musician and thinker who has a complete, mature vision for this project. I think it will have a very big impact!

Could you be anything else rather than a musician?
I wish I could, because then life would be a lot easier (laughs). But I don’t think so.