Darcy James Argue's Secret Society The Music Gallery, Toronto ON, June 22

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society The Music Gallery, Toronto ON, June 22
Photo: Kevin Jones
Darcy James Argue has notched JUNO (and Grammy) nominations for the two albums he has recorded with innovative big band Secret Society, but it can still be argued he is too much of a kept secret in his homeland. Certainly, the Polaris clique have been asleep at the switch in neglecting his work, and it was disappointing to see less than a full house at the comparatively small Music Gallery venue.

Undaunted, and under Argue's empathetic direction, the 18-piece Secret Society took us on an enthralling musical ride, one with more twists and turns than the Tour de France. This is the cream of the crop of players on the Brooklyn/NYC scene, and the fact that most played more than one instrument meant a huge number of instrumental combinations were possible.

It's impossible to pin down the Secret Society sound, as it fuses such disparate elements as contemporary classical, post-rock, traditional big band jazz, funk, steampunk and world music. It is the effortless and unforced fusion of styles that sets Argue's work apart. His intricately arranged compositions move from sparse to full, slow to frenzied, but never in a predictable pattern.

The opening number was "Transit," from their 2009 debut album Infernal Machines, a typically dynamic piece that featured spirited lead trumpet work from Canadian notable Ingrid Jensen. It was followed by "All In," an as yet unrecorded piece that Argue described as an homage to late "trumpet guru" (and Secret Society contributor) Laurie Frink. On this lyrical number, trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis skilfully led the way.

As advertised, the core of the concert comprised the full rendition of the second Secret Society album, Brooklyn Babylon. Argue described the theme of this "urban fable" eloquently, and it was reprised superbly by his band. Clarinets, flutes, piccolo, trombones, tubas, saxophones and flugelhorn were all given time in the spotlight, but always in concise and coherent fashion, while the subtle interplay between horns and woodwinds consistently thrilled. Melodica joined acoustic bass in one section, percussionist Jon Wilkan kept proceedings pulsating and the electric, slide and acoustic guitar of Sebastian Noelle added sweet texture. Based on a Croatian folk song, "Interlude #5: Unmoored" featured his crisp acoustic work.

Argue struck a remarkable figure as conductor/ringleader, with expressive hand and body gestures helping spur on his virtuosic ensemble. The thoroughly deserved standing ovation he and Secret Society received at concert's end brought us the reward of one final piece: "Last Waltz For Levon" was dedicated to the late great Levon Helm. Touches of New Orleans were audible in this horn-led yet sometimes funky eulogy, and you can bet Levon would have approved.