With Infernal Machines, Darcy James Argue seemed to come out of nowhere: Who was this guy who wrote tunes drawing equally from the big band tradition as well as post-rock and classical minimalism? Why did he call his music “steampunk-jazz?” The reality was that this composer-bandleader came from the practice hall, where he’d been drilling his band for several years. Infernal Machines bowled us over with a fully formed, highly unique vision.
Brooklyn Babylon is his follow-up and, after a Grammy nod as well as three of DownBeat’s “rising star” awards, the album has got a lot of following up to do. A 53-minute suite originally written as one half of a visual-art-and-music spectacle at the Brooklyn Academy of Music back in 2011, the studio-recording version of Brooklyn Babylon raises a few questions of its own: Is this a proper jazz record, or is it a one-dimensional document of a live multi-media project? And: does it matter?
The answer does matter. If this were just a callback to some live event, it would be of interest mostly to those who attended the shows. But the first two tracks — “Prologue” and “The Neighborhood” — advertise that the new music here will be able to carry this idiosyncratic album on its own terms. The first piece features some high-spirited marching band romping-about, as well as a striking tenor sax solo from Sam Sadigursky. The second tune, after opening with a minimalist piano quote from LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends,” pairs electric bass with a sweetly idyllic clarinet solo that never gets too saccharine, thanks to some tart, brassy interruptions in the background. (Argue didn’t win that “arranger” DownBeat award for nothing.) The whole thing blooms into an electric guitar-driven section that, in turn, deftly morphs back into a reprise of its opening piano motif.
And there’s still more than 40 minutes of inventive music like that left to discover. Some of the pieces feature wooden flutes, others Afro-Peruvian percussion. Ingrid Jensen’s electric trumpet solo in “Building” calls to mind Miles’s best fusion bands. That all these sounds work together so elegantly is evidence of expert execution, not just singular vision; the entire program flows in a way that many modern-classical composers ought to envy. And you don’t need to look up the plotline of the (wordless) stage show — it was about an architect commissioned to build the world tallest carousel amid “embattled neighborhoods” — in order to enjoy the music. Argue’s curiosity and skill at integrating all his fascinations represent the humanism of the narrative capably on its own. Both florid with moment-to-moment intrigue and a fine document of an artist with a lot to say (and the ambition to match), Brooklyn Babylon is essential listening for all sorts of musical communities.