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Brooklyn, N.Y., is the current home of John Ellis — raised in North Carolina and once a student in New Orleans — and Darcy James Argue, from Canada and once a student in Boston. They were both on the main stage at the 2012 Newport Jazz Festival.
The son of a preacher in North Carolina, tenor saxophonist Ellis made a pivot in New Orleans to funk with an original twist. He opens JazzSet from Newport with an off-kilter tango and funhouse-influenced piece. "Dubinland Carnival" gives the accordionist space to shine. The double bass provided by the organ pedals and sousaphone together give Double-Wide its name. The sousaphone and drums imply a parade, even in "This Too Shall Pass," Ellis' composition for his beloved grandfather. His tenor and the trombone are the front line. Double-Wide's albums have great names: Dance Like There's No Tomorrow and Puppet Mischief.
Brooklyn Academy of Music, better known as BAM, commissioned the next piece and staged it in 2011. Brooklyn Babylon is a multimedia work by Darcy James Argue (formerly a student of NEA Jazz Master composer Bob Brookmeyer) and the graphic artist and comic-book illustrator Danijel Zezelj, born in Croatia. At BAM, Zezelj painted live during the performance as his animated sequences were projected overhead. The musicians, dressed in workmen's caps and overalls, stood on risers in a circle. As Argue conducted the amazing music, the orchestra played its heart out.
At Newport, without the visuals, Argue gives a synopsis of the story, and then the Secret Society plays a suite of three movements and two interludes. It's like a dream with real-world references. Then, the listener's mind comes up with other touchstones — John Philip Sousa, a kazoo band, memories of Lewis Hine's photos of the construction of the Empire State Building. Perhaps you'll have different associations as you listen to the extraordinary music of Brooklyn Babylon.