Fight The Big Bull – All is Gladness in the Kingdom (CF 169)
The Richmond, Virginia based little big band Fight The Big Bull made waves in the jazz underground with their 2008 Clean Feed debut, Dying Will Be Easy. With adulatory liner notes written by trumpeter/arranger Steven Bernstein (Millennial Territory Orchestra, Sex Mob, etc.), the half hour demo session only hinted at the large ensemble’s potential. Their full-length follow-up, All is Gladness in the Kingdom, features Bernstein as co-producer, co-arranger and guest soloist, guaranteeing the band even greater attention.
Invited by bandleader and guitarist Matt White to join Fight The Big Bull for their next record, Bernstein’s liner notes recount a week’s worth of rehearsals, recordings, local workshops and live gigs. The results of this intense working regimen can be heard in their congenial rapport, further enhanced by a common language. Co-arrangers White and Bernstein share mutual interests, including a fondness for Duke Ellington’s lush voicings, Gil Evan’s sophisticated arrangements and Charles Mingus’ vibrant group interplay. Even the woolly distortion White and Bernstein use on cuts like “Mothra” and “Gold Lions” subtly suggest Evans’ rock and pop experiments, an acknowledged influence on Bernstein.
Despite its impressiveness, Dying Will Be Easy was heavily indebted to Mingus’ 1964 masterpiece Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse!). White shows great strides as a composer and arranger since that embryonic effort, sublimating his influences into well-crafted, episodic compositions. Delving into Bachian counterpoint and intricate polyrhythms as readily as New Thing-era expressionism and expansive post-minimalist vamps, White’s low pitched horn section adds heft to these sweeping charts, counterbalanced by a rhythm section that places as much timbral importance on kaleidoscopic percussion as the traditional trap set.
Beyond an intermittent use of EFX within the ensemble (as on the spacey “Rockers”), White’s guitar is the only electric instrument, other than a striking guest appearance from Eddie Prendergrast’s fuzzed-out electric bass. Playing an arranger’s role, White eschews the spotlight, comping chords and ferreting out serpentine ostinatos with the rhythm section. His primary strength lies not in his fretwork, but in his skills as a writer and arranger.
“Eddie and Cameron Strike Back/Satchel Paige” is an exemplary demonstration of White’s compositional acumen. The piece covers a wide range of dynamics, building slowly from a hypnotic bass ostinato accompanied by a thicket of braying horns, to a punchy percussion vamp that introduces J.C. Kuhl’s soaring tenor. Kuhl’s volcanic solo rises to a fevered pitch, buttressed by caterwauling horns at the climax, before the tune suddenly downshifts into a spare bass duet. Guest artist Eddie Prendergrast’s fuzz-toned electric bass drone shadows contrabassist Cameron Ralston’s brisk pizzicato break before Prendergrast launches into a probing cadenza of psychedelic proportions, culminating in a rousing unison coda with the band in full sway.
More than just an invited guest, Bernstein’s contributions to the date warrant particular attention. Culled from Sex Mob’s playbook, his phantasmagorical ode to the Japanese kaiju legend, “Mothra,” is a delirious fusion of metronomic backbeats, tortuous horns and acidic guitar figures. His expanded variation on “Martin Denny” (another Sex Mob tune), book-ends a boisterous bluesy interlude with cinematic impressionism, while his crafty arrangement of The Band’s “Jemima Surrender” opens with a rousing horn chorale that sounds like it could blow down the walls of Jericho. Bernstein’s solo statements are equally noteworthy. When White’s overdriven guitar riff descends on Bryan Hooten’s multiphonic trombone peals in the middle of “Gold Lions,” accompanied by Bonham-esque downbeats and Bernstein’s heavily amplified slide trumpet glissandos, alien vistas materialize – conjuring eerily familiar memories of a fictional past.
It is paradoxical that big bands – especially creative, risk taking big bands – would be making a come-back in such economically risky times, yet there is ample proof of their resurgence. Darcy James Argue, Steven Bernstein, John Hollenbeck, Satoko Fujii, Adam Lane and Maria Schneider all lead viable large ensembles that draw from the big band tradition without being constrained by the past. Add to this short list Fight The Big Bull. With any luck, All is Gladness in the Kingdom will garner them the acclaim they so rightly deserve.