CAMBRIDGE — Darcy James Argue didn’t set out on a crusade to put a millennial spin on big-band jazz, matching complex charts with hip influences and a yen for reclaiming the cultural currency of the form favored by Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
It just sort of happened.
“I didn’t want to write for big bands, for all the obvious reasons why any sane person would not want to write for big bands,” he recalls in a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn, citing the inscrutable puzzle of how to keep an 18-piece ensemble economically viable, particularly as a beginning composer and conductor.
Sane or not, he picked up “the big band habit,” as he puts it, almost against his will. The early results include a Grammy-nominated debut album in 2009 fronting his eponymous ensemble, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. His follow-up, the narrative song-cycle “Brooklyn Babylon” (developed with Croatian-born graphic novelist Danijel Zezelj) was released this week. Argue and band will feature music from the project at a Regattabar concert on Friday.
Though the ensemble’s name seems to hint at an insider, hipster mentality, Argue wants to reclaim big-band as the music of the people. As the pulse of the swing era, it had a dominant but relatively brief moment at the center of American popular music. Argue, 37, carries in his head an alternate history in which it never went out of vogue.
“What if, when Bob Dylan went electric, he also had a big band behind him?,” Argue says.
Working from a traditional model of woodwind, brass, and rhythm sections, Argue writes music that assimilates contemporary references, be it a rock backbeat, some on-trend Balkan folk rhythms, or a piano figure reminding of LCD Soundsystem. Classical studies and elements from New York’s new-music compositional scene seep in as well.
Argue had been a pianist making his way on the Montreal jazz scene when an unexpected detour led him to graduate studies at New England Conservatory — an e-mail correspondence with the late Bob Brookmeyer prompted the famed composer and educator to take a look at some of Argue’s compositions, and invite him to come study.
He took a stab at writing for big band as a learning exercise, to take advantage of the large student ensemble meeting weekly to try out new material.
“I fell into this pit of writing for big band all the time. I tried to keep up my piano chops but eventually I had to just throw in the towel and say: I guess I’m a big band composer now, because that’s what I’m spending all my time doing,” he says. “So I had to start a big band.”
It’s not something you do for the money. Critical enthusiasm and the Grammy nomination helped raise the ensemble’s profile, but it had been together for a few years before playing its first gig outside of New York City, at the Moers Festival in Germany. Aside from the logistics involved with taking such a big group on the road, in a world where dancehalls no longer provide a string of one-night engagements, Argue’s particular music requires a large time commitment on the rehearsal end.
“He has an incredibly detailed picture of how he wants everything to work. He writes music that is at the extremes of possibility, whether having to do with breath, dynamics, or how quickly you can put this instrument down and pick another one up,” observes John Ellis, who alternates between clarinet, tenor saxophone, and bass clarinet with the group. “His music is generally not comfortable to play, but his vision is extraordinary.”
“Brooklyn Babylon” originated as a narrative, multimedia spectacle for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave festival in 2011. The music stands on its own as a 53-minute album, but was deliberately sculpted to accompany animation and live painting by Zezelj, who developed the story. Set in an alternate, imagined Brooklyn, it depicts an all-powerful mayor setting out to build the largest tower in the world and commissioning an immigrant carpenter to build a carousel nestled at the top.
Zezelj was an artist in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 2004; his time there inspired the graphic novel “Stray Dogs,” he says, and original artwork from that project was subject of the first solo show there by a graphic novelist.
“One of the themes of ‘Brooklyn Babylon’ is destruction of an urban community, and the way ideas of progress are imposed over the reality, complexity, and beauty of human life,” the artist explains in an e-mail.
With implied comments about gentrification and urban renewal, and associated artwork whose stylistic references range from dystopian to Art Deco, “Brooklyn Babylon” is simultaneously futuristic, contemporary, and nostalgic.
A similar observation might be made about Argue’s broader musical mission.
“I’m not under any illusions — I’m not writing indie rock. But I want the music that I write to feel like it belongs to today,” Argue says. “There’s a lot of great things going on outside of the worlds of jazz and classical music, and I want to be open to those things. There’s a lot of kindred spirits.”Jeremy Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.