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The Loudest Horns in Dixie

Richmond Jazz band Fight the Big Bull

Fight the Big Bull.

Most jazz musicians migrate to one of the genre’s thriving scenes in big cities like New York, Chicago, or New Orleans. Matt White decided to stay in Richmond. While Virginia’s capital isn’t known as a brass hotbed, White’s eight-piece, avant-garde ensemble Fight the Big Bull has given his hometown’s small but thriving jazz scene some national attention.

White formed Fight the Big Bull during his last year of studying jazz at Virginia Commonwealth University. In a bold move, he sent a demo recording to two of his heroes: Ken Vandermark, a MacArthur Fellow and sax player from Chicago, and renowned New York City trumpeter Steven Bernstein of the Lounge Lizards and Sex Mob, who upon hearing White’s music responded with a simple two-word e-mail, “Call me.”

“I recorded what was supposed to be a demo, and I made some efforts to get it in front of some artists I respected,” says White, who plays guitar and arranges the group’s multi-dimensional jazz works. “I was approaching it like a student, but those guys were both encouraging me to take the next step.”

Check These OutThrough connections, some of the compositions were sent to a Portugal-based record label, Clean Feed, which released the band’s debut, Dying Will Be Easy, in 2008. Shortly after, the relatively unknown group from an unsuspecting Southern city was getting critical praise across the country and offers to play gigs in New York City jazz clubs.

“It’s been interesting to be a jazz band from Richmond,” says White. “After the first record, we started getting recognition as a non-traveling jazz band from a non-industry town. There is actually an amazing jazz community in Richmond. Fight the Big Bull has been on the leading edge of getting people interested from the outside, but this town has an incredible community of acting jazz ensembles that are just as good as anything you’re going to see anywhere else.”

With regular shows around Richmond, Fight the Big Bull soon fostered its own local following, drawing crowds that were attracted to the group’s mix of big band tradition and forward-thinking freeform madness. With Bob Miller on trumpet, Bryan Hooten and Reggie Pace on trombone, Jason Scott on woodwinds, John Lilley on saxophone, Cameron Ralston on bass, and Pinson Chanselle on drums, White leads the ensemble on sonic journeys that can swing with the ghost of Dizzy Gillespie, crater into chaotic improvisational cacophony, or find the appealing tuneful center of rock and American roots music—an area the composer has been exploring more lately.

“I have become very interested in the American musical aesthetic,” White explains. “That has found me really digging into folk music, particularly African American folk music like old slave songs and spirituals. I started by studying jazz in school and sort of moved backwards towards old gospel and blues. It’s been very influential in my music writing.”

Last year, Fight the Big Bull released a sophomore album All Is Gladness in the Kingdom with help from Bernstein, but the group also took a turn into the indie rock world, collaborating with singer-songwriter David Karsten Daniels on an album of Henry David Thoreau poems turned into songs, I Mean To Live Here Still. The band was also invited by lauded experimental roots outfit Megafaun to perform on the Duke University-commissioned “Sounds of the South,” a concert based on the rural folk songs collected by the late ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, which also featured indie folk mega icon Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Parts of the performance will be released as a live album with an accompanying DVD, and as a result of the show, trombonist Pace earned a spot in Bon Iver’s touring band.

“Fight the Big Bull now has an interesting dynamic, heading into the future,” says White. “We have all of these great contacts in the jazz world, but we’ve also developed some indie rock currency. These worlds are very different, so we are figuring out how to connect the dots of the genre spectrum.”

For now, the band still holds court with a monthly gig at Balliceaux Restaurant in Richmond, and White recently started his own label, Space Bomb Records, which he’s using to broaden Fight the Big Bull’s reach. The label will soon release solo records from Joe Westerlund of Megafaun and Nashville songstress Natalie Pratt.

“I’m basing it on the old school model of classic record labels like Stax or Motown, where we’ll be the house band and work with other artists,” he explains. “We want to use the unique musical resources of Richmond to reach out to others and make records that I don’t think could be made anywhere else.”

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