by Giovanni Russonello
Right around this time last year, when 14th Street was mottled with ice and the wind could made you shudder and it actually felt something like January in D.C., Subterranean A threw a secret jazz bash. Somehow, a lot of people found out about it.
The clutch of young music freaks that live in and run the basement apartment-turned-venue had decided to take a chance on presenting jazz there. (Previously, they had stuck to indie and electronica.) The resulting show, presented by Search & Restore, was a packed out, full-throttle joyride, with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society (a Grammy-nominated, constructivist big band) and Fight the Big Bull (a slightly less big band from Richmond, Va.) offering sounds that seared and pounded. They stuffed the cavernous room with kinetic joy, winning more than a few converts to the Church of Jazz.
Fight the Big Bull, “Gold Lions”
[audio:https://www.capitalbop.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/05-Gold-Lions.mp3|titles=Gold Lions|artists=Fight the Big Bull]
This Wednesday, Fight the Big Bull is back in town. The eight-piece band – which will play a free show at the Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage – blends Charles Mingus’ rabid, little-big-band-that-could sensibility with New Orleans polyphony, David Murray-esque loft jazz, John Cage expansivity and even some bluegrass shadings. If the band’s effort last January is any testament, this show will be a burner. In anticipation of the gig, bandleader, guitarist and composer Matthew White answered a few questions via email.
CapitalBop: This band has a distinctive identity. When you built this band up from the foundational Fight the Bull trio, did you hear a sound you wanted in your mind, like Bob Dylan says he did with the Blonde on Blonde band, or did the music just grow from trial and error with the band members?
Matthew White: I definitely had a sound in mind. The hard part is getting eight busy people in one room to rehearse and then getting an opportunity to play and develop what we have worked on. The compositions have flowed pretty naturally from the beginning and our dynamic as a performing ensemble has always been strong. It always has been a very natural flow from my compositional ideas to there realization in the band.
CB: How do different members of the band play different roles in constructing that sound you knew you wanted?
MW: Everyone has a unique voice. Everyone. And that’s why they were chosen for the band. The goal for a composer (or at least for me) is to mold the music to the players, not the other way around. Fortunately, we are lucky enough to have an extraordinary pool of talent here in Richmond and the folks that are in Fight the Big Bull are incredible players, very flexible, and each have a voice that is unique to themselves. The sound that I wanted and the players in the band are one thing, they are one decision. We could all freely improvise without any direction and it would sound like the sound I wanted. It was the sound of those eight guys playing music together.
To answer the question more specifically, I don’t know that the different members play different roles. Their instruments, of course, play different roles – the drummer keeps the time, etc. – but the Fight the Big Bull sound is all of us telling a story, singing (with our instruments) in unison, each of us picking up the story where another left off.
CB: How have certain members’ contributions altered what you envisioned for the better?
MW: We all have grown a lot. This band has been playing since 2005, when we were all college kids. What we are able to do now is significantly greater than what we could do then and a lot of that has to do with individuals’ personal growth on their instruments. Also, my imagination certainly does not encompass the complete possibilities that a group like this allows. It is very often that watching someone play or talking with them about how they are thinking broadens my understanding and imagination.
CB: You worked with musical polymath Steven Bernstein on your latest release, All Is Gladness in the Kingdom. He did a bunch of the composing, arranging, producing and playing. How did you guys hook up? Also, what did you learn from working with him, and what surprised you?
MW: My last semester in college I emailed Steven asking if I could buy some scores or something. I was (and am) a huge fan of his playing and arranging. He emailed back and just said “call me” with his number. We had a wonderful phone conversation and I asked if could come take a lesson. Over the next few months and years we had a series of lessons that changed my life. He taught me how to listen. There’s also a certain amount of intangibles you pick up from being around someone who is as pro as Steven, as well as hearing about those same kinds of things that he has learned from the ridiculous amount of wonderful people he has worked with. There’s a sense of history and tradition that I have tried to take away from my time with him. He is the ultimate connoisseur of those kinds of things – he really appreciates the details of the process, and that has been absolutely priceless to me.
CB: What does the future hold for FTBB? Another album? A big tour? A moon colony?
MW: Another record for sure and probably a moon colony. And a stadium tour.
This past year has been a real adventure for me. I started a record label and recorded a solo album and have seen my opportunities to express myself through composition and writing grow tremendously. This has really challenged me to think about questions like, “What exactly is Fight the Big Bull and what is the future for us? What part of my voice is this band?” I think there are a couple things that have really jumped out: 1. Fight the Big Bull is eight special people and it is the sound of us making music together. 2. It is a Jazz band, it acts in the Jazz tradition and explores those kind of waters.
Besides those two things, which might seem small but aren’t, I am interested in how you integrate the recording studio into our sound. That’s one thing I will probably be dealing with a lot. Are we making a recorded version of our live show? Or is there another way to explore? The answer is there is another way to explore, but how far down that road to go is the question. Is that even a path FTBB will travel? I’m not sure, but I think about it a lot.
Fight the Big Bull performs a free concert at the Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage on Wednesday at 6 p.m. Find more information on that show here.