Darcy James Argue's Secret Society sound sinister and sublime at Kings Place

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There are very few composers now writing world class material for big band, true innovators who are taking the music forward. One of them is Gil Evans' protege Maria Schneider, whose appearance at the London Jazz Festival in 2015 was a major highlight. Another is the Vancouver-born Brooklyn-based bandleader Darcy James Argue. On the face of it their music couldn't be more different. Schneider's Grammy-winning latest release, The Thompson Fields, was inspired by the prairies of Minnesota. Argue's music is typically gritty, urban and angular, all crunchy harmonies and thrashing alt rock grooves.

At Kings Place on Friday night, making his first appearance in the UK since 2010, Argue led his 18-piece Secret Society big band through Real Enemies, a masterpiece of contemporary repertoire, inspired by conspiracy theories and the politics of paranoia and written using an adapted version of Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone technique, which was once subject to a conspiracy theory of its own. The suite opened with noirish textures, tentative stabs that rippled around the ensemble and darkly luminous harmonies. As the music seesawed between nagging unease and hysterical panic we also heard the first of many atmospheric snippets of recorded speech from the likes of Frank Church, Dick Cheney and JFK.

Across 13-chapters, Real Enemies indulges in all kinds of paranoia, including references to the Red Scare, Area 51 and the Illuminati, and there were ingenious shifts of genre and feel to match the changes of subject matter. Midway through 'Dark Alliance', with the band knee-deep in the squelchy bass of a 1980s hip hop funk groove and the voice of Nancy Reagan pontificating about the evils of drugs, there was a sudden ironic kick to Nicaraguan son. Despite waging a domestic war on narcotics, the Reagan administration famously turned a blind eye to the drug trafficking of their Contra allies, in an effort to stop Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution.

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The range of different colours and textures Argue gets from the ensemble is astonishing. Throughout the performance pairs of soloists, including tenorist Lucas Pino and guitarist Sebastian Noelle, shared the melodies and drove the narrative along with visceral improvisations. 'Apocalypse In Process', an exploration of doomsday cults, brought weedling pipe organ and frail woodwinds that evoked the sound of early music. And an edgy, pecked motif (the sort of thing that puts you in mind of secret rendezvouses in rainwashed alleyways between men with briefcases and fedoras) regularly reared its head, played by muted trumpets into the open lid of the piano.

There were some huge moments, heralded by screaming alarm calls and ensemble hits that snapped your head back with all the devastating force of an assassin's bullet, but there was reams of subtle ingenuity too. 'The Hidden Hand' featured a stunning passage when syncopated stabs from the band punctuated JFK's 1961 Address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association, in which he talks of a "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy". It's a bravura piece of large ensemble writing that proves just how nimble a big band can be in the right hands.

Real Enemies debuted as a multimedia performance in 2015, which featured a mosaic of video screens and a giant doomsday clock. It was written when President Trump was still just a twinkle in the alt-right's eye. It's an unhappy coincidence that the themes the suite explores are so topical once again. It doesn't need the visuals, but we got a few all the same. When the finale arrived, soloist after soloist piled in until the whole band were on their feet – a ripple effect like the spread of a seductive conspiracy theory. And midway through, as a blazing Carl Maraghi baritone solo melted into spectral ambience, Argue turned to face the audience. Black suited, hair slicked back, face half illuminated and half in shadow, he looked like the leader of his own sinister cult.

The recording of Real Enemies was one of my albums of 2016. I didn't know if I'd ever get to hear it live. It's so profoundly unprofitable and logistically tortuous to run a big band these days, let alone rehearse one and take it on the road, it was a minor miracle to see the Secret Society in the UK. We have to support this music or it will simply disappear. Which is why it was so gutting to see the hall half empty and so heartwarming to see everyone on their feet at the end, applauding furiously. Though Argue is revered by musicians and those in the know, he still doesn't have the public profile he deserves, and it was a late one (10pm start). Still, that can't be the whole story, can it? Why would anyone want to miss this? It's enough to set your mind racing.

– Thomas Rees
– Photos by Tim Dickeson