Friday, November 19, 2010

Blogging the London Jazz Festival - Big Bands Redux

See below for some incriminating evidence of Wednesday night's RCM Big Band hit at the Bull's Head (you may need to turn up your speakers pretty high).

It's Gordon Goodwin's delightfully candy-shopped version of Miles Davis' "Seven Steps to Heaven," featuring Peter Whitehouse on trombone, Steffan Ciccotti on vibraphone, Toby Street on trumpet, and a little bit of yours truly on those drum breaks at the end.

Speaking of incriminating big band evidence, I was able to see Darcy James Argue's Secret Society on Thursday evening in their (very fringe) London debut.  My unyielding loyalty to Argue and his co-conspirators is well-trod, so it doesn't say much that I thought the concert was friggin' unbelievable, even better than when I saw them in New York about a year ago.  So instead, here are some comments, musings, and the like from last night's show.

#1: Cafe Oto is a gnarly venue
Really screams jazz club, doesn't it?
On the downside, it's quite a nuisance to get to - two tube lines plus the infrequently-running London Overground.  However, Cafe Oto is the kind of DIY venue that I hadn't been to in London before.  Oto takes up the first floor of a converted warehouse in the northeast London neighborhood of Dalston, land of the fried chicken shops it seems.  It has a vibe quite similar to 45 Bleecker in New York and caters to the weird and wonderful things that will never make it to Southbank or the Barbican.  And last night, it was packed.  It was so packed, I was virtually sitting up Darcy's butt.

#2: That first row seat was actually pretty frickin' sweet
During the break, the guy sitting behind me asked, "Are you ok with being that close?"  I responded that I'm a drum set player so I'm usually even closer to the sonic onslaught.  He then added that it was pretty amazing to have so many musicians in such an intimate space.  Very much agreed.

Speaking of sonic onslaught, my big band director in high school once made a particularly weird exhortation that we should make a phalanx of sound.  It only made sense to the two people that payed attention in world history (300 didn't come out until next year), but in terms of last night, it's a pretty apt description.  Not only were the full ensemble sections fiercely loud, but they were also perfectly ordered and balanced.  It was a wonderfully terrifying sonic experience.

They seem kindly and chill here, but trust me, Leonidas wouldn't wanna mess
It was especially terrifying when Josh Sinton brought his full force to bear on his baritone sax.  During the pulsing sections of "Habeas Corpus," I could only imagine how much more potent Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians would be if Sinton doubled the bass clarinet parts on bari.  During his solo on the new piece "Dymaxion," inspired by the American futurist Buckminster Fuller, the instrument seemed to buckle under the the torrential winds from Sinton's lungs, literally screaming in pain.
The Dymaxion Car

The advantage of that seat wasn't just sonic, but visual as well.  I had a nearly unobstructed view of Mr. Argue's scores, which excited my super-technical music nerd side.  For example, the other new piece on the program was called "Induction Effect," a meditation on how the human brain is so well-programed to disorient itself.  The piece began with what was supposed to be a totally disorienting vamp, but I had the inside scoop on how it all was supposed to work.  First the bass came in playing a straight triplet pattern in 5/4 time.  Drummer Jon Wikan laid down a fat rock beat on top. Then the electric piano played a different repeating figure that suggested a different time signature.  And then the guitar added another part that felt totally unrelated to the other three.  And the band came in and...

I just lost my place.

#3 The band's collegiality is inspiring
Taking a big band that plays unclassifiable and weird music on the road is definitely a shoestring effort.  The only reason the Secret Society was able to come over to England the first place was a grant from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation and the group may still end their trip in the red.

That being said, the only reason that 18 musicians would join up for such endeavor is that they love and believe in the music they're playing.  It's one thing when Darcy gets to travel to Europe and do his music with one of the state-sponsored big bands, but it's not quite the same as when the music is played by close friends and colleagues.  It was great to see folks like Ingrid Jensen in the trumpet section, Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, and Erika von Kleist leading the saxes.  These players (and many more in the band) are leaders in their own rights and could be off working on their own projects, or at least doing more lucrative studio work at home in New York.  Instead they chose to travel halfway around the world to play in some old warehouse in a dingy part of town in front of maybe 100 people.  If that's not for the love of the game, I don't know what is.

The Secret Society has grown from a pick-up band just a few years ago into a tight-knit group, truly co-creators in this music.  The band is more fluent now in Argue's complex musical language, more comfortable in navigating his cruelly difficult solo sections.  On "Habeas Corpus," trombonist James Hirschfeld gave it his all, soaring over the insistent background figures and on "Phobos," saxophonist Mark Small gracefully weaved his way through the chord sequence that changes on the whim of Mr. Argue.  But more importantly, they've developed a deep sense of camaraderie.  Erika von Kleist got a high five from Darcy for her stirring solo on "Obsidian Flow."  There were quite a few hoots coming from the band during the collective soloing of Sam Sadigursky and trombonist Mike Fahie on "Jacobin Club."  Trumpeter Matt Holman got a hearty applause from his bandmates for somehow navigating through the web of "Induction Effect."

No matter who plays the compositions, Darcy James Argue's music is dark, richly layered, and finely crafted.  But it takes the particular talents and commitment of his Secret Society to make it immediate and exciting, something that will stay in the listener's mind well after leaving the show.  Here's to the hope that Darcy James Argue will always have the help of a Secret Society to make his music too good a secret to keep.

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