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By Lissette Corsa
While seven years have passed since their last album together, composer Darcy James Argue and his 18-piece Secret Society orchestra are in peak form on this new double-disc tour de force. In many ways, Dynamic Maximum Tension is a culmination of Argue’s idiosyncratic journey, even as he continues to find fresh perspectives from grand narratives that carry historical resonance.
On DMT, there’s a sense that Argue is embarking on something new, as he continues to reimagine big band music for today’s audiences. The constant juxtaposition between past, present and future informs Secret Society’s modern-day ethos, as well as the listener’s imagination. Argue also evokes the eternal essence of optimism in dark times by deriving inspiration from a cadre of 20th-century figures that were ahead of their time — futurist designer R. Buckminster Fuller, actress-screenwriter Mae West, composer-arranger Bob Brookmeyer, the legendary Duke Ellington and British mathematician Alan Turing, among others. In Argue’s own words, it was his way of restoring his “faith in our ability to grab the future and shape it ourselves.” Nowhere on the album is that desire more palpable than on the equally kinetic and streamlined Disc One opener “Dymaxion,” written in 2010 as a nod to inventor Fuller’s ideas about consumption of technology vis-à-vis conservation of energy. It’s the spark that ignited the rest of the album’s 10 tracks.
Mostly framed by disparate, overarching themes, moments of personal introspection abound, such as the sulky lament “All In,” in memory of trumpeter Laurie Frink, an early member of Secret Society; and “Last Waltz for Levon,” a ballad dedicated to Levon Helm, iconic drummer and singer for The Band. On the sweeping and elegantly lush “Ebonite,” Argue pays homage to Argentina, incorporating the South American nation’s chacarera folk style. On Disc Two, “Tensile Curves,” a response to Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” is a 34-minute opus that slowly churns into a grinding blues traversing the same five keys as Ellington’s original. The album closes with the coquettish “Mae West: Advice” featuring Cécile McLorin Salvant’s enthralling vocals.