Fight the Big Bull, a sprawling jazz nonet out of Richmond, Virginia, is a messy, glorious, big-hearted triumph. Dying Will Be Easy features four exciting tunes of brass-filled expressiveness. It is steeped in the thick harmonies of Charles Mingus, it suggests what Duke Ellington might have done with an electric guitar, and it adds sticky dollops of flamenco groove and rocking punch. “Wow”, you’ll think, again and again.
The guitar and compositions are by Matthew White, but they are the product of a vital scene and a group of committed musicians. White is an arranging student of the wonderful Steven Bernstein (known for Sex Mob, the Millennial Territory Orchestra, and a million other diverse projects), and his natural impulse is in line with Bernstein’s: to cross lines of demarcation with a sense of purpose and commitment.
As a result, Fight the Big Bull achieves contradictory ends. First, the band sounds utterly distinctive and singular, with distorted guitar, trumpet, tenor sax, clarinet, two trombones, bass, drums, and percussion. Second, its sound is a post-modern amalgam of influences, Frankensteined together into something that absolutely takes in the lightening and hops off the slab. The Spanish/Latin influences can be overt, as is the infusion of Ellington/Mingus/AACM/Bernstein, but there is also a sense that Matt White has enjoyed The Clash, Jimi Hendrix, Dylan, and Bo Diddley. This music is up-to-the-minute and not without a sense of fun, even as it passes whatever music history test you want to throw at it.
Check out “Grizzly Bear”. It opens with brassy bravado in several parts: a unison line that slams and bops over a Spanish-tinged New Orleans groove, a collectively improvised contrapuntal section, a return of a sparser unison before the thoroughly out percussion solo. The bassist gets in a statement before we’re treated to a wah-wahed trombone solo over a second-line blues feel. Duke-ish horn parts lift the solo creepily from below before a return to theme. A six-minute marvel.
“Dying Will Be Easy” uses more pastels and more acid. It opens with hushed-quiet woodwinds over a near-bossa percussion shuffle, but then White drops a distorted sawbuzz guitar tone under it, almost like a third trombone with a sore throat. The drums are a slow military rat-a-tat as the horns play a mournful blues-slide of a melody. It’s an equal joy, then, when the slow slink of this tune suddenly turns into a tenor sax rave-up, with snare slaps as sharp and unexpected as any rock band and with a bass groove to match. J.C. Kuhl’s improvising is not reckless or atonal, but it is tonally loose and runs without resort to stock licks or clichés. White’s solo is over a totally different feeling—slow, pounded drums that finally fall away to let the guitar slide and rumble down off the fretboard until the piece fades away.
“November 25th” is a cleaner bit of writing, with counter-melodies dodging and dancing over a series of different clicked, clapped, or tambourined Flamenco-ish polyrhthyms. Outstanding trumpet solo. “In Jarama Valley” may be my favorite track. It begins with a trumpet lament over the hint of a hip-hop groove in the percussion, trombones growling quietly or moving Hollywood-style with clarinet and bass. As the band develops a collective improvisation, different voices emerge as if from around shadowed corners. This piece moves in episodes that keep you on your toes as a listener—some pretty and some rather out, but all tied together by common rhythms, bass lines, or melodic motifs. The last two minutes, frankly, are as sexy and soulful as any Marvin Gaye you might think you prefer. Since when does “out” jazz seem so much like sensual make-out music?
This is music of the most careful (meaning, literally, full of care) sort, but it is neither spic-n-span nor predictable. It moves with an organic sense of growth from bar to bar and section to section, proving for the millionth time that jazz—the real thing, not any kind of synthy, elevator stuff, but rather the sweaty American stuff that has always been our finest art form—is alive and well.
Jazz, alive and well in Richmond, Virginia. Why not? Thanks in no small part to Matthew White and Fight the Big Bull.