Fight the Big Bull – ALL IS GLADNESS IN THE KINGDOM (CF 169)
Swagger isn’t a term often used with respect to contemporary improvised music, and especially large ensembles. One more often comes across it in connection with archival territory band recordings, Mingus or the funkier moments of the Clarke-Boland Big Band. Creative large ensembles are frequently praised instead for either attention to detail or fire-breathing. Both of these certainly occur in the twelve-tet Fight the Big Bull, but neither is necessarily a given. Active in the Richmond, Virginia area since 2005, FTBB centers around guitarist and composer Matt White, and All Is Gladness in the Kingdom is the group’s second disc to date. Most of the names here will be unfamiliar to even the most keyed-in modern jazzheads, though trombonist Bryan Hooten, drummer Brian Jones and bassist Cameron Ralston are also three fourths of the oddly groovy Ombak. For All Is Gladness, FTBB are joined on nine compositions by trumpeter and New York impresario Steven Bernstein, who contributes two pieces and one arrangement.
The disc begins with White’s “Mobile Tigers,” whose breathy reed and trombone textures are punctuated by Jones’ vibes (shades of Charles Moffett) and in-the-red wahs and whinnies from Bernstein’s trumpet. Those dirty blats engender a sweaty slink that remains consistently on the verge of exploding until tenor and dueling trombones punch through in nasty albeit fleet tailgate, a bar walk on hot coals. There’s an intricacy as well that’s wholly modern, as ricocheting rim shots support a clean muted trumpet, clarinet and tenor lines. Some of the reed bluster is reminiscent of a husky Vandermark tune, but that’s not a slight and the rhythms have an intricacy and metallic tautness derived more from minimalism. Borne on pillowy looped guitar and stuttering saxophones, Bernstein’s “Mothra” evolves into a strange merger of crime jazz, Basie hustle and gritty electric bass vamp. A smidgen of Southern indie-rock lineage must have gotten into the arrangement, though, because that vamp does a fuzzy about-face into something straight out of a Polvo song, before White stretches out into wicked metallic skronk over a syrupy horn section.
It seems like Gato Barbieri’s Chapter One has collided with Rhys Chatham’s guitar army on “Jemima Surrender,” but the tune unfolds into wry Canterbury-like horns with snatches copped from Morphine and Klezmokum. Calling FTBB postmodern would be easy, but hardly does them justice – their assemblage hangs together extraordinarily well and is the result of weekly open rehearsals and serious chops. But it’s hard to think about anything other than collisions when Hooten’s trombone multiphonics evolve into pitch-divided trumpet and swamp riffs somewhere out of Beefheart and Dr. John. Rarely has stylistic dissonance seemed so singular and swaggered with such conviction.