In high-school jazz bands there's always a group of players who yawn at the song list. Even when the music isn't that old, it sounds that way to them. Once rehearsals are over, though, the kids pop in headphones to get their fix of their kind of music: maybe Charles Mingus, but more likely hip-hop, punk or dance. It's not hard to see why, since there hasn't been a common language between big band and the large swath of modern pop forms for a long time. Though big band has produced many (mostly unheard) innovators since the days of Count Basie and the Duke—think Sun Ra or Carla Bley—a lot of that music has belonged to the free-jazz fringe. By contrast, the gentler innovators who snuggle up close to classical music might seem a tad tame to listeners who need their jazz to cook. This isn't the fault of the free-jazzers or the classically minded composers. It's just that jazz has needed writers and players to reconnect the tradition to more modern forms, without falling victim to pastiche.
Each generation tries its hand at grafting new styles onto jazz, with varying results—note Gil Evans's not-always successful use of Jimi Hendrix's music—but lately there have been some hip moves in this direction. On the small-ensemble front, Jason Moran has turned the hip-hop anthem "Planet Rock" inside out on piano, while the Bad Plus have proved they can work up a fever interpreting, by turns, the music of Nirvana and Stravinsky. But often as not, the thrills given off by these mash-ups are those of reinvention, as opposed to sui generis invention itself.
For a wholly original take on big band's past, present and future, look to Darcy James Argue, a 33-year-old Brooklynite who has composed a batch of manifestoes that draws on past legacies, and adds a little postpunk energy to boot. A onetime student of big-band visionary Bob Brookmeyer, Argue himself seems a natural product of an era in which genres can be shuffled with ease on iPod playlists. Talking with him, you go from discussing obscure Italian serialist composers to indie bands like TV on the Radio. The composer calls his music "steampunk big band," a reference to the niche art movement that fantasizes about modern tech innovations existing in the steam-powered era. That range is reflected—and, more important, is made frictionless—on Argue's debut record, "Infernal Machines." Argue's tunes can command your attention anywhere—no small feat in our media-saturated world. He and his 18-piece Secret Society band pull off the trick by pairing electro-influenced rhythms with fuzzed-out guitars, fearsome horns and chamber-music voicings in the woodwinds. For all this panstylistic erudition, though, Argue's music still swings hard whenever it wants. "Transit" explodes with an elaborate fire that recalls Mingus's "Let My Children Hear Music." The song "Jacobin Club," named after Robespierre's merry band, slinks with the sly wit of "Such Sweet Thunder"–era Ellington, proving Argue is no enemy of history. Listen on headphones, and you can hear a lot of rocklike production layering. Two thirds through "Habeas Corpus (for Maher Arar)"— a civil-rights ode that's timely in light of the Obama administration's release of Bush-era "torture memos"—the production supports its trombones, stabbing like sirens, with a guitar that chugs ominously low in the mix.
Argue is one of a handful of musical free-thinkers who have found a home on New Amsterdam Records, an upstart label that has been releasing one quality disc after another since its founding. Built around old traditions (mostly classical, and now jazz), each New Amsterdam record also reaches out to the beat-focused worlds of other contemporary music. This is not a condescension to the market, but a reflection of the artists' own desire to knock down genre boundaries. These are albums, says Judd Greenstein, one of the label's cofounders, specifically produced to sound good on an MP3 player during your commute.
Just as Argue brings non-jazz elements to bear in his music, "Now," from Greenstein's NOW Ensemble, imports a catchy inflection to classical forms. One Greenstein composition on that release is titled "Sing Along"—a command that doesn't apply all that frequently to contemporary chamber music. On the whole, New Amsterdam is making a nice little tradition out of breaking tradition. The real question is whether its music will find its way into the hands of hungry young performers in ensembles outside the metropolises. Perhaps local high-school music directors should strike a deal with their charges. Yes, you still have to wear the big-band uniforms or those god-awful tuxes, but with those outfits comes a copy of "Infernal Machines" or "Now." Striking a balance between the old and the new has rarely sounded this good.