Fight the Big Bull – All Is Gladness in the Kingdom (feat. Steven Bernstein) – Clean Feed

by | Apr 12, 2010 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Fight the Big Bull – All Is Gladness in the Kingdom (feat. Steven Bernstein) – Clean Feed CF169CD, 76:20 ****:

(Jason Scott – alto & tenor saxophone, clarinet; J.C, Kuhl – tenor saxophone, clarinet; John Lilley – tenor saxophone; Steven Bernstein – trumpet, slide trumpet; Bob Miller – trumpet; Reggie Pace – trombone; Bryan Hooten – trombone; Matt White – guitar; Cameron Ralston – bass; Brian Jones – percussion; Pinson Chanselle – trap kit; Eddie Prendergast – electric bass (track 7))

What if someone combined the traditionalism of Mingus, Ellington or Gil Evans with the contemporary spirit of the Lounge Lizards, Dr. John or the Velvet Underground? Sound intriguing? That’s the sort of across-the-board instrumental variety that slides and romps through All Is Gladness in the Kingdom, the sophomore release from Richmond, Virginia’s ear-popping jazz ensemble Fight the Big Bull.

The ten-piece group is augmented on this go-round by trumpeter/composer/musical director Steven Bernstein, a mentor for Fight the Big Bull’s leader, guitarist Matt White, who has been inspired by Bernstein’s work, which ranges from Bernstein’s raucous covers conglomeration Sex Mob to arranging for the Kansas City Band, as seen/heard in Robert Altman’s film Kansas City. It is that kind of disparate demeanor that delineates the nine tracks: two written by Bernstein, six by the prolific White and one cover.

White and Bernstein’s charts afford space for the respective musical voices and their instruments, which includes three saxes, two clarinets, two trumpets, two trombones, two percussionists, bass and guitar. Full-ranging content is thoroughly developed over the course of 76 minutes on nine expansive tracks, only one of which falls under six minutes. “Mobile Tigers,” for example, showcases White’s unrestricted composition skills, which meld well-worn melodies and long-established Southern rhythms and cadences with a fresh sense of groove and semi-controlled chaos. During “Mobile Tigers,” woodwinds and brass collaborate and clash; bass and drums tick slowly and then bust out with energy; and the tune builds from quiet grace to a clattering and back again to a single percussive closing.

The title track is a tour-de-force that begins with horns and handclaps and rises as more instruments join in White’s initially tentative theme. Bassist Cameron Ralston takes the first solo spot with a melodic undercurrent, followed by Bernstein’s soulful trumpet, and before long a snaky groove is manifested that mixes Memphis soul with a New Orleans meter. If no one has experienced Bernstein’s unique slide trumpet this is the place to hear it.

Modernity is heightened on complex “Eddie and Cameron Strike Back/Satchel Paige,” named after guest electric bassist Eddie Prendergast and acoustic bassist Ralston as well as the celebrated athlete. The arrangement fuses a Mingus-esque vamp, a Fela Kuti-like Afro-beat verve and distorted bass reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius’ punk jazz. Bernstein and White concentrate on support roles and give the saxes and trombones spacious solo room.

Bernstein’s most delightful cut is the exotica tribute “Martin Denny,” which maintains a light winsome flavor that echoes the island aura Denny made famous. Trumpet is the most notable accent. The action picks up considerably at the halfway point when the band jumps into a stormy groove, but the audio gale briskly disappears into another down-tempo moodiness that ends the piece.  

Despite influences that run from reggae to avant-garde, Fight the Big Bull retains an organic, natural atmosphere that demonstrates anything can shape jazz and jazz can shape anything. All Is Gladness in the Kingdom is an outing that stirs things up as it stirs a lot into the musical pot and is worth searching out for by anyone looking for adventurous and unpredictable material.

1. Mobile Tigers
2. Mothra
3. The Sacred Harp
4. Jemima Surrender
5. Gold Lions
6. All Is Gladness in the Kingdom
7. Eddie and Cameron Strike Back/Satchel Paige
8. Martin Denny
9. Rockers

— Doug Simpson

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