There’s nothing conventional about Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society — from the leader’s name, to the name of the band, to the music they play. It is, ostensibly, a jazz orchestra, but at the Regattabar Friday night they offered barely a hint of jazz swing. There aren’t a lot of points of comparison. This isn’t the post-Basie swing of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, the clamoring avant-garde of the Sun Ra Arkestra, or the shimmering Brazilian updrafts of Maria Schneider. Argue likes to assemble the traditional jazz big-band colors of brass and woodwinds, but he engages them with layers of cyclical rhythms, like the “process” minimalism of early Philip Glass and Steve Reich — although one audience member name-checked John Adams. He wasn’t wrong.
Friday night, Secret Society gave the Boston premiere of Argue’s entire new album, “Brooklyn Babylon” (New Amsterdam Records). This piece is meant to depict a story conceived by Argue with the Croatian-born graphic artist Danijel Zezelj, taking place in a mythic Brooklyn, N.Y., where an immense tower is being built and an immigrant carpenter finds himself torn between personal ambition and his loyalty to the community.
All well and good. The album jacket is nicely illustrated by Zezelj, and the piece, commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has been performed in Brooklyn with projections and costumes.
At the Regattabar we had none of that; what mattered was the music — played with precision and urgency by this 18-piece band. Argue’s writing creates tension from moment to moment with those insistent motoric rhythms, sometimes sounded by nothing but piano and guitar, but often picked up by the horns or bass and drums in counter-rhythms. They played the 55-minute piece without interruption, beginning with a fierce ostinato that soon turned into a super-fast flamenco, with exuberant horn lines. The relentless drive of those rhythms was spelled by more soaring horn lines, occasional solos, carnival oom-pah-pahs (one section of the piece is called “Coney Island”), Balkan dances, flute and clarinet reveries, and one brief, fluttering low contrabass clarinet passage that could have been an old biplane puttering away in the distance. It was gorgeous and spellbinding. Argue explained that the piece was about “a community coming together in the face of adversity to help each other,” and compared it to Boston. The band then offered the easy-going “Last Waltz for Levon,” and the reference to the late drummer of the Band also seemed appropriate.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misidentified who commissioned the piece “Brooklyn Babylon.” It was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.