The Kennedy Center

Fight the Big Bull



Biography

Once upon a time, music was a craft, and the art form’s great craftsmen weren’t known as producers, but rather composers, arrangers, soloists, and bandleaders. It was an era when jazz served as the great storehouse of culture and style, and the big band functioned as archivist, interpreter and emissary to the masses. Matt White, the 27-year-old guitarist, composer, bandleader, and craftsman behind Fight the Big Bull, knows that time is now.

Make no mistake: There’s nothing nostalgic or revivalist about Fight the Big Bull. The “rapturously chaotic sound” owes as much to the band’s open ears as it does to their mastery of tradition. Forged in the fall of 2005 around the (now defunct) avant-garde guitar-trombone-drum trio Fight the Bull, the group has become a Richmond, Virginia, institution through their reputation for fearless improvisation and White’s clever, forward-looking charts. A bi-weekly local gig quickly garnered the band an eclectic following of devoted purists and eager converts, and their 2008 debut Dying Will Be Easy, on the Portuguese label Clean Feed, pushed the group before a national audience, earning them feature spots on WNYC and NPR’s Fresh Air, while Popmatters.com listed the record among the year’s best. It wasn’t long before the band landed a gig at celebrated New York avant-garde venue The Stone and a series of guest spots with visionary saxophonist Ken Vandermark in Chicago.

Much of this can be tracked to a two-word email White received shortly after college graduation. With fawning admiration and little expectation that he’d get a response, White wrote to legendary downtown trumpeter Steven Bernstein requesting charts to study. “Call me,” was Bernstein’s reply. A one-hour lesson in composition turned into an eight-hour session and a lasting mentorship that has guided Fight the Big Bull’s career as well as White’s growth as a composer. When, in early 2009, White asked Bernstein to help write and record his band’s hotly anticipated sophomore album, All is Gladness in the Kingdom; the answer was just as concise.

True to his southern roots and the old cliché that all music is folk music, many of White’s arrangements draw on old shape-note melodies and traditional slave songs.  And despite its polish, there’s a glimmer of anarchy that fuels the band’s charge and groove-sense without threatening the integrity of the compositions.  Clearly impressed with the collaboration, Bernstein calls Fight the Big Bull “A band with no fear, that is used to playing in front of an audience, that doesn’t mind rocking out, and doesn’t mind spacing out.”

It’s a reputation that’s rapidly spreading. In June 2010, London-based Fat Cat Records released I Mean to Live Here Still, a collaboration between Fight the Big Bull and David Karsten Daniels, a singer/songwriter who approached White with a number of tunes he’d adapted from poems by Henry David Thoreau.  It’s been said that breaking the rules requires prior knowledge of what those rules may be. 2012 looks to be the year when Fight the Big Bull charges out from under the wing of history, horns drawn, to rewrite what can be accomplished with a little old thing called the big band.

Watch Past Performances

Video 2/1/2012: Fight the Big Bull

The Richmond, Virginia big band offers a sound with tight configurations of brass, woodwinds, and rhythm that vamp, stutter, grind, and groove.

Fight the Big Bull