Fuelled by innovation rather than nostalgia, composers and arrangers continue to utilize the sonic parameters of larger ensembles to help tell their stories in the most expansive way possible. Whether it’s exposing individual original compositions or organizing the sessions into a thematic whole, these vital CDs demonstrate why a big band is still favoured as an expressive vehicle for both free-form improvisation and tightly plotted compositions.
For an example of the latter you don’t have to go much further than Brooklyn Babylon (New Amsterdam Records NWAM 048 newamsterdamrecords.com), a mythical and cinematic narrative created by Vancouver-born Darcy James Argue as part of a multi-media presentation by Croatian-born visual artist Danijel Zezelj. Argue, who also lived in Montreal and received his degree in composition in Boston, has been in Brooklyn since 2003 and composed the multi-part Brooklyn Babylon as a fable, reflecting his adopted hometown’s storied past, cultural multiplicity and ambitious future. Conducted by the composer, Argue’s 18-piece Secret Society band performs the suite’s eight interlocking themes and seven brief interludes. Calling on the talents of a band featuring the interlocked groove of drummer Jon Wikan and bassist Matt Clohesy, the storytelling understatement of several reed soloists, and the alternately plunger excitement and mellow narratives of fellow Canuck trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, Argue directs a sound picture with enough expansive exposition to make the CD the equivalent of aural Technicolor. Reflecting present-day currents of New York`s second borough, the sequences in Argue’s suite blend and contrast vamping big-band section work; heavily rhythmic rock-music-like grooves; gentle folkloric and impressionistic sound pastels from flute, soprano sax and flugelhorn soloists; plus interludes that replicate brass band marches, Balkan ballads, a touch of electronic processing and the pre-recorded sounds of the borough’s streets. One standout is Missing Parts when the rest of the band members play hand percussion backing Josh Stinson’s free-form baritone sax lines and a mellow trombone interlude from James Hirschfield. Another is The Tallest Tower in the World, which reaches its heights through brassy trumpet triplets and soprano sax squeals. Keyboardist Gordon Webster holds components together not only with sharp piano cadenzas but also with near-vocalized melodic sweeps. If the program does have a weakness it probably lies in its movie soundtrack-like surround sound expressiveness. With piccolo peeps and French horn lowing heard more often than tuba burps or guitar note shredding, the selections often retreat to overly pleasant background sounds lacking the authoritative ingredients that would define them as completely individual. But Argue is still developing. Maybe he’ll soon compose a piece to reflect his homeland.