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Brooklyn Babylon

4.6 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Brooklyn Babylon
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Audio CD, April 30, 2013
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Weaving together progressive jazz, early-American popular styles, Balkan folk musics, and the sounds of Brooklyn's diverse contemporary music scene - from the dance-punk of LCD Soundsystem and experimental indie rock of Dirty Projectors to Missy Mazzoli's blend of post-rock and quirky minimalism - Argue creates a vividly evocative musical narrative that is at once timeless and unlike anything heard before. Argue's Secret Society is one of the most admired ensembles in contemporary jazz, having toured in Europe, Brazil, and North America and been twice featured at the Newport Jazz Festival. Its members include in-demand instrumentalists such as John Ellis, Ingrid Jensen, Ryan Keberle, and Sam Sadigursky.

Brooklyn Babylon was conceived in collaboration with Croatian-born visual artist Danijel Zezelj, whose narrative inspired Argue s mash-up of musical styles. Zezelj's artwork places the action in a larger-than-life, mythic Brooklyn, where past, present, and future coexist. Plans are afoot to construct an immense tower - the tallest in the world - right in the heart of the city. Lev Bezdomni, a master carpenter, finds himself torn between his personal ambition and his allegiance to the community when he is commissioned to build the carousel that will crown it.

The 53-minute work shows Argue taking a novelistic approach to long-form composition: a prologue, eight chapters separated by brief interludes, and an epilogue. The album opens with the actual sounds of Brooklyn - a sonic collage of recordings of the borough captured on Argue's portable digital recorder. The ensemble gradually comes into focus and introduces the Prologue, from which every subsequent musical theme in Brooklyn Babylon derives. Argue reconfigures these themes using a broad array of techniques, inflected by contemporary indie rock, classical music, and jazz, particularly from the often maligned 1970s: the earthy avant-garde of Dewey Redman and Lester Bowie; the intricate large-ensemble sounds of Thad Jones and Don Ellis; and the sophisticated populism of Donald Byrd and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. Waltzes, marches and - naturally - fairground carousels also fold into the mix.

Review

Working with his 18-piece big band, Brooklyn-based Canadian modern composer Darcy James Argue has fashioned a unique musical document in the form of a series of compositions used as both a mirror to and companion piece for a graphic novel by Danijel Zezelj. Argue's compositional abilities are matched step for step by brilliant performances from the Secret Society players, and the result is an impressively innovative achievement that stands effortlessly on its own. Notable for both its sonic/ cinematic sweep and its seamless amalgam of contemporary and late 20th Century sounds, Brooklyn Babylon is a feast for fans of Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk and others of their stature. Audacious stuff that grabs the ear and mind from the opening track and never lets up. --Scene Magazine, Rod Nicholson

'Brooklyn Babylon,' the monumentally ambitious new album by Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, opens with the dull machine rumble of an elevated subway train, echoing somewhere in the middle distance. About half a minute in, a cohort of brass kicks up an Eastern European ruckus, setting the scene and establishing a theme. The track is simply titled 'Prologue,' and it's both tantalizing and a little worrisome.


Mr. Argue, a resourceful young composer from Brooklyn - by way of an upbringing in Vancouver and training at the New England Conservatory of Music - has one previous album with Secret Society, his 18-piece big band. There was no outside agenda on that album, 'Infernal Machines,' though it managed to make a few salient points, mainly about the acres of untapped possibility in what might look like an antiquated format.


The music on 'Brooklyn Babylon,' on the other hand, comes loaded with subtext: Mr. Argue originally created it in collaboration with Danijel Zezelj, an artist and animator, as part of the 2011 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Their multimedia piece suggested an urban fable, revolving around issues of gentrification and artistic integrity. That s a lot to compress into album form, and so the question here is whether Mr. Argue and crew were able to make the music stand on its own.


Short answer: yes. Fittingly, for an artistic endeavor so obsessed with the act of building - one of its most dynamic tracks is 'Construction + Destruction' - this album looms with sturdy intent. That theme unfurled at its outset serves as a functional motif, around which many others race and swirl. (The album was produced by Mr. Argue with Brian Montgomery, who also did stunning work as its recording and mixing engineer.)


And while there's always some narrative implication in the music, it's never too elusive to grasp. You don't need a codebook to understand 'Builders,' which begins with scurrying movements and then hunkers down in bombast, with Ingrid Jensen's echo-processed trumpet crying out as a lone, anguished voice.


Mr. Argue, 37, has consistently drawn praise for bringing the established language of big-band writing, especially as exemplified by his former teacher Bob Brookmeyer, into meaningful contact with aspects of postminimalism and indie rock. There's more of that here, most strikingly on 'The Neighborhood,' which borrows a strobing piano part, a disco beat and eventually an electric bass line from the LCD Soundsystem song 'All My Friends.' A track called 'Coney Island' incorporates both a minimalist piano repetition, played by Gordon Webster, and a distorted guitar solo, by Sebastian Noelle.


Mr. Noelle also plays one of seven roughly minute-long interludes - 'Interlude #5 Unmoored,' based on a Croatian folk song ' alone on acoustic guitar. It leads into 'Missing Parts,' a percussive and pointillist exercise with solos from the trombonist James Hirschfeld and the baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton, as well as Erica von Kleist on piccolo and Nadje Noordhuis on fluegelhorn. It's the album's most action-packed five minutes, a good distillation of what makes this band, and Mr. Argue's vision, so vital and absorbing. It also restates that opening melody: thematic coherence, at no extra cost. --The New York Times, Nate Chinen, April 2013

The composer Darcy James Argue has a little bit of the archetypal indie rocker in him. He's a white guy from Canada who moved to Brooklyn and started a band there. His new album is filled with deliberate suggestions of dance-punk; of Eastern European brass bands and carnival music; of the piano riff in LCD Soundsystem's 'All My Friends.' It's about gentrification. There's an animated projection that goes with it.


But Argue's medium of choice is the big band - the standard large jazz ensemble with trumpets, trombones, saxophones, that sort of thing. He has his own anachronistic orchestra, called Secret Society. The fact that he's able to do this in 2013 says something about how hard he works at it, and how interesting the results are. Eighteen standing members - including world-class soloists like John Ellis, Ryan Keberle and Ingrid Jensen - and a long list of substitutes seem to think so, anyway.


Any big-band composer spends time dealing with a certain jazz tradition of how Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Thad Jones had orchestras before them. If you've ever read any of his writing, you know that Argue has spent plenty of time engaging that legacy. But this project, his second studio album, is decidedly broader than 'large ensemble jazz.' It was conceived in collaboration with visual artist Danijel Zezelj, who created charcoal-hued stop-motion animation telling the story of a future Brooklyn. (He also live-painted a massive 30' x 4' cityscape during the premiere of this music.) The story follows a master Brooklyn carpenter contracted to build a carousel atop a new tower, set to be the tallest in the world, as his professional aims and neighborhood loyalty find themselves at odds.


That makes Brooklyn Babylon something of a soundtrack, though it stands alone better than your average score. For all the layers-upon-layers of classical minimalism, or noisy squalls, or powerful solo turns, it never feels like a pop quiz in musical vocabulary. Motives repeat, build, tessellate; a wooden flute or an electrified trumpet always feels purposeful. The whole thing, as many-tentacled as words make it seem, coheres.


The visual element of Brooklyn Babylon brings all this out. Zezelj's language - its severe angles, its black-and-white monochromatic look - suggests a metropolis reminiscent of both early-20th-century New York and a bordering-on-dystopian future. There's humanity there, though, in seething masses and individual pathos pushing up through the cracks. A modern big band like this one can do grim, and it can do overwhelming, and it can do it in ways you'll 'get' even if you haven't listened to a jazz record in your life. But it's powered in the old-fashioned way of bodies pushing air through bores and sticks unto cymbals, and the exuberance therein is never far away. --NPR Radio, Patrick Jarenwattananon, April 2013

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Digital Booklet: Brooklyn Babylon
Digital Booklet: Brooklyn Babylon
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Product details

  • Audio CD (April 30, 2013)
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: New Amsterdam
  • ASIN: B00BK6HPRE
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #104,856 in CDs & Vinyl (See Top 100 in CDs & Vinyl)
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