Bull Fights The Big Sexmob

First things first: this here is video (including our audio recording) of Fight The Big Bull's 7:00 p.m. set on Tuesday, July 21 at Joe's Pub in New York. We didn't Webcast this — it wasn't actually part of the NPR Music Triple Bill Party — but it is the only video we have from that entire night. So, courtesy of WBGO:

"Mobile Tigers," "Gold Lions," "All Is Gladness In The Kingdom," and "Shouting Song" from Fight The Big Bull, Live In Concert. Matthew E. White, guitar/leader; Bob Miller, trumpet; Bryan Hooten, trombone; Reggie Pace, trombone; Jason Scott, tenor saxophone/clarinet; J.C. Kuhl, tenor saxophone; John Lilley, tenor saxophone; Cameron Ralston, bass; Pinson Chanselle, drum kit; Brian Jones, percussion. With special guest Steven Bernstein, trumpets. First Set of Two. Joe's Pub, New York, N.Y.: July 21, 2009.

Second things, uh, second: I started writing a full recap of the night's action on the bus back to Washington, D.C. It grew rather monstrous. So this is the first of two parts.

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So NPR Music threw this party last Tuesday. We put three bands on stage at a New York venue whose capacity was around 170 people. Loud music, loud crowds: a good time was had by all.

But all this was made possible because our first group, Richmond, Va. "little big band" Fight The Big Bull, had already booked an interesting gig in New York that very night. As guitarist and leader Matt White announced on stage, Fight The Big Bull spent 10 days last winter recording a forthcoming album with trumpeter Steven Bernstein, who the band calls a friend and mentor. (White was, amazingly, Bernstein's first arranging student.) And downtown New York has long been the home turf of improvising musicians like Bernstein. So hours before our triple bill showcase began, I was treated to a double bill: Fight The Big Bull performing with Steven Bernstein, followed by a performance by Bernstein's quartet Sexmob.

Both were abbreviated sets, at around 40 minutes each. But it was a great pairing: here were two bands unafraid of progressive jazz, but untethered to it either. (Fight The Big Bull is known in Richmond for hosting singalongs to Weezer and Michael Jackson albums; Sexmob, of course, is a band known widely for its covers of modern pop anthems and melodies from old James Bond films.) And what made the match so successful, I surmise, was the fact that both groups make having fun such a clear priority.

Musically speaking, White seems to prioritize timbre and texture over most other considerations. Much of his writing, including the tunes called that night, have little in the way of sweeping harmonic movement, which presents a distinct challenge to his soloists: how do you develop and tell interesting stories when you only have one pedal point to work from? Some, I thought, handled that freedom better than others, and in any event, it was almost as if soloing was subsumed into a greater endeavor. With constantly morphing background grooves and horn arrangements, often leading to abrupt transitions, solo statements (sometimes simultaneous ones) occasionally seemed to play the role of "good noise" layered over ensemble features.

But there were plenty of colorful sounds working in harmonic consort: Bryan Hooten and Reggie Pace working out various mutes on their trombones; three tenor saxophone players, some of whom double on clarinet; the band banging on various pitched metal objects; Brian Jones playing bell lyre and other auxiliary percussion with big clave-like wooden dowels; polyrhythmic hand clapping. Matt himself didn't take any solos, but he did ratchet up some meaty guitar riffs ("Gold Lions," and "All Is Gladness In The Kingdom" especially) which propelled the action forward. And all that overlapping polyphony would inevitably build to intense, throbbing grooves that made me drop my critical instincts. So by the time John Lilley brought "Shouting Song" to its screaming-into-the-saxophone climax, the horn section playing in unison over a dual-drummer thrash freakout, the band had long since won over me over with its sophisticated embrace of blowout energy.

Like Fight The Big Bull, Steven Bernstein's Sexmob sold us on its many sonorities and groove anchors. Steven Bernstein alternated between the straight mic and the device which processed his slide trumpet into a buzzsaw-like noise. Briggan Krauss spasmodically blew virtuosic fits of enthusiasm into his alto. Tony Scherr was pure and loud on the upright bass. Kenny Wollesen seemed relaxed, always totally in control of a crisp, forward-pressing beat.

And also like Fight The Big Bull, Sexmob gave us a spectacle — albeit a much different kind. With 10 pieces and his own guitar to look after, Matt White ended up playing traffic cop to the barrage of horns and rhythm, and was often counting off new sections or signaling transitions. Much of his band's appeal is the overpowering largesse that comes with proper alignments of 11 different bodies. It's the thing that deft studio engineers would labor over in recording, mixing and mastering, and produce a fantastic, rich, layered record.

Sexmob has made a number of interesting albums, but the band's appeal is really the theatre of its live act. (Perhaps that's why its latest offering is a live set, a collaboration with organist John Medeski recorded at the Willisau Jazz Festival in 2006.) When Bernstein got up on stage, he immediately began setting up jokes with the audience; schtick done, he told bassist Tony Scherr to "give them a little more like a sort of variety show thing" and put on his best circus announcer's voice to introduce Kenny Wollesen. He would periodically return to the mic for more of the same. And of course, there was audience participation. Prior to the show, Wollesen went around impishly handing out little clacking noisemakers to various members of the audience. And when he began a drum solo, he encouraged everyone to accompany him. ("This is like Plato's Retreat in the '70s — everybody's joining in," Bernstein quipped.) Bernstein's last line of the evening said it all: "live music, baby."

Musically, Sexmob's set was like a warped version of Ornette Coleman's late '50s/early '60s quartet. There was the same instrumentation and emphasis on free improvisation, but it came with a different concept, sound and approach. Ornette and company often prized song-form melody statements; there was some of that, but often Sexmob instead played repeating fragments, riffs, themes which easily segued one climate for improvisation into the next. Briggan Krauss had Coleman's stringency, but a completely foreign timbre; he nestled his abundant technique into fiery, compact bursts. With Bernstein's processed trumpet sounding an awful lot like a distorted guitar, and driving rock and funk grooves laid down by Scherr and Wollesen, the musical references were to different places. And where Coleman's early groups often came off as a high-modernist project, a new way of looking at the blues and improvisation styles which preceded them, Sexmob seemed beyond that. In referencing many styles in popular music history — including, obviously, Ornette Coleman's — with a broad and comic jazz vocabulary, Bernstein and the band made everything seem familiar, but recontextualized it to maximize everyone's pleasure.

Most of all, these bands were enjoyable. Having fun is generally under-discussed in jazz, because everyone always thinks about jazz now as a Serious Listening Music. That it is, sure, but it certainly wasn't incompatible with the hoots and hollers heard from the audience last Tuesday. Both bands got the reactions they did by emphasizing the appeal of a good beat and an attitude dedicated to having a good time.

Check this space soon for a recap of the rest of the evening.

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