It’s hard not to hear Real Enemies (New Amsterdam), the recent album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, in a new light this week. The third album from the ambitious New York composer and bandleader uses the idea of conspiracy theories as a conceptual framework, examining the tendency of the postwar U.S. to embrace them to explain political, social, and economic conditions and movements. There’s been no shortage of fresh conspiracy theories during this election season, applied to both campaigns—the fanciful notion that the liberal media were colluding to cripple Trump, for instance, or the slightly more plausible claim that the DNC worked to discredit Bernie Sanders during the primaries. I’m generally dismissive of conspiracy theories, but this dispiriting week has made me fear the forces at work in American society.
Real Enemies premiered at BAM’s 2015 Next Wave Festival as a multimedia performance with writer-director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Negrini, but though the recording obviously lacks their contributions, it includes enough chunks of historical speech to make its intent plain—samples from the likes of John F. Kennedy, Dick Cheney, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton touch on COINLTELPRO, drug trafficking, domestic terrorism, and even UFOS. Paranoia hangs thick over the album. Actor James Urbaniak even delivers extended readings from Richard Hofstadter’s influential 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” excerpts from Kathryn S. Olmsted’s 2009 book Real Enemies, and writings by Butler.
Few jazz orchestras still exist these days, but the Secret Society is one of the best and most probing. Argue has written and arranged 13 pieces that stand up to the conceptual underpinnings he’s chosen. He employs 12-tone techniques, explores Afro-Cuban grooves (a clear allusion to Cuba’s relationship to the Soviet Union), and takes inspiration from the scores of early-70s films that addressed conspiracies and cover-ups—specifically those by Michael Small (The Parallax View) and David Shire (All the President’s Men). The lineup is superb, featuring some of the finest players in New York—including reedists John Ellis and Sam Sadigursky, trombonists Ryan Keberle and Jacob Garchik, and trumpeters Ingrid Jensen and Seneca Black—and while each piece contains one or two excellent solos, the focus is on rigorous ensemble work. Below you can listen to “Casus Belli,” an extraordinary piece that charges through multiple episodes that reflect the approaches above; its slightly martial vibe makes the paranoid orientation crystal clear.
Anthony Braxton, Echo Echo Mirror House (Victo)
Nass El Ghiwane, Nass El Ghiwane (Melodie)
Ensemble MusikFabrik, Liza Lim: Tongue of the Invisible (Wergo)
Axis: Sova, Motor Earth (God?)
Mitsuhiro Yoshimura & Masahiko Okura, Trio (Presquile)