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Canadian composer Darcy James Argue gets second try at a Grammy Award

Canadian composer Darcy James Argue is getting a second try at a Grammy Award. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho-Lindsay Beyerstein
January 25, 2014 - 6:00 AM

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Three years ago, Vancouver-reared avant-jazz composer Darcy James Argue found himself in a "surreal" position: sitting in the audience of the Grammy Awards.

Nominated for best large jazz ensemble album, Argue rejoiced in his unlikely environs. A guest at the lengthy pre-telecast — a boisterous if dizzyingly fleet affair at which the vast majority of the gala's awards are distributed away from cameras — he was nevertheless delighted by the experiences: "incredibly charming" host Bobby McFerrin; a gleeful performance of "Freedom Jazz Dance" by McFerrin and Argue favourite Esperanza Spalding; and the first Grammy win for legendary gospel singer Mavis Staples.

Since Argue went home without a Grammy that day, his highlight was seeing Neil Young win his first Grammy for music, an honour the legendary rocker was on hand to accept in person. Argue was thrilled, so much so he briefly pondered breaking protocol — after all, how often can an artist expect to be in the audience at the Grammys?

"I considered throwing a hand to Neil as he was going up the aisle. But I thought better of it," Argue recalled with a laugh in a recent telephone interview. "I was right on the aisle. I gave him a vigorous head nod. A 'yeah, man!' That was the extent of it."

In hindsight, Argue was probably right to err on the side of caution when it came to Grammy etiquette. Because this year he became a two-time nominee, and he'll be heading back to Los Angeles this weekend for a second opportunity at Grammy gold.

The 38-year-old expected neither nomination, but this second nod — again for best large jazz ensemble album — arrived after an especially ambitious (and taxing) project.

That is "Brooklyn Babylon," an album accompaniment to a multimedia project co-created by visual artist Danijel Zezelj. The Croatian-raised, Brooklyn-based Zezelj is a celebrated comic book artist and illustrator of graphic novels whom Argue approached about collaborating on a book that would have musical and multimedia companions.

Zezelj was, Argue noted, skeptical. For one thing, he had a preconceived notion of "big band" that didn't suit his art. Once he realized that Argue doesn't do anything conventionally — performing with an 18-piece band (called the Secret Society) and applying a forward-thinking, steampunk twist to the genre — he warmed to the idea.

Eventually Zezelj crafted a story about a master carpenter who's commissioned to build a carousel that will crown a sky-reaching tower set to be built in the heart of future Brooklyn. He's thrilled by the opportunity, but feels conflicted between ambition and respect for his neighbourhood.

Argue spent years crafting music to accompany the book while also investing considerable attention in a massive multimedia production mounted in 2011 during New York's BAM Next Wave Festival. The performance was, in Argue's words, three-pronged — there was the racket conjured by his band, a stop-motion animation created by Zezelj and an exhibition of live painting by the artist, on an enormous 12-metre canvas on scaffolding dangling above the band.

"Right up until the premiere I was just terrified that it was going to be a complete catastrophe, because neither Danijel nor I had ever done anything like this before," Argue recalled. "We had no idea what we were doing. But luckily people seemed to like it."

Indeed, Time Out New York raved that the "fantastic" show featured a "massive, brass-heavy, sax-buoyant sound (moving) out of the group like a living wall" while the New York City Jazz Record praised the group's "slashing fury" and "awesome full-ensemble precision."

Argue decided he wanted to commit the music created for the show to record. That should be a simple enough task, but doing anything with an 18-piece band — touring or recording — is prohibitively expensive, particularly given that experimental big band jazz is not necessarily the most lucrative corner of the music industry.

So he took to crowd-funding website Kickstarter, offering up a bevy of prizes (including credit in the liner notes, signed graphic novels and, for whatever reason, a custom cocktail recipe) for would-be donors. In all, Argue raked in a little over $13,000 (though he notes that the actual amount, minus fees claimed by Kickstarter and Amazon and the costs of providing the prizes, was significantly less) and now had the freedom to record his second album.

The only problem? He wasn't sure it was going to be any good.

"There was this whole multimedia circus thing that was part of the original conception of it, and I wasn't at all sure whether the music would stand alone as its own thing," Argue remembered.

After recording sessions that were "very intense and very stressful" — the band had just returned from a tour of Brazil and everyone was "sort of jet-lagged and sick" — Argue listened intently, with as much of a critical ear as he could. He also sent the music to some trusted colleagues, imploring them to give an honest opinion.

Ultimately, he decided the music did work on its own.

And the Grammy nomination, which of course doesn't take into account the multimedia show that preceded the album, provides further validation.

"I'm really gratified," Argue said.

The McGill University-educated Argue said that the Grammy recognition hasn't necessarily made a massive impact on his career prospects, particularly given the fierce level of competition for jazz musicians in his adopted home of New York.

"It doesn't actually really get very much easier despite having the two Grammy nominations," he said. "I'm still dealing with the same kind of stuff that everyone else is dealing with: desperately trying to get club owners to return emails and dealing with promoters who are confused at the idea of booking a big band."

And yet he hopes that perhaps the latest Grammy nod will help him with what remains his biggest challenge: raising the money necessary to lug his legion band on tour.

"To be able to bring this music to audiences in new cities is the biggest challenge," he said. "Having it come at a crucial time will hopefully allow us to get the band on the road."


Follow @CP_Patch on Twitter.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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