Fight the Big Bull - "Mobile Tigers" (All is Gladness in the Kingdom)
In order for a big band release to stand out these days, musical prowess must be combined with kick-ass composition and a fantastic sounding recording. All three elements are present on All is Gladness in the Kingdom, but unfortunately, not always at the same time. On its second album, this Richmond Virginia-based 10-piece highlights the compositions and trumpet playing of veteran improviser and composer Steven Bernstein. The results are exhilarating and frustrating by turn, as the group lays down almost 80 minutes of barely controlled freedom.
Of the nine tracks on offer, two are by Fight the Big Bull guitarist Matt White, and six are by Bernstein; there’s one cover, which we’ll get to in a second. The disc begins with the wonderful White-penned “Mobile Tigers,” an astonishing mixture of down-home bluesiness and a sort of metric morphing that keeps the listener on proverbial toes as the wild solos unfold, often simultaneously. There’s plenty of timbral intrigue as the tune’s vamp eases along, and after a gradual rise and surge of energy, the sudden band drop-out is breathtaking, leaving only Brian Jones’ gentle percussion.
I spent the rest of the disc waiting for the rush that such perfectly crafted and executed compositions bring, but it never returned in full. There’s plenty of multicultural groove on offer, each detail clarified by a first-rate production. The problems reside in what I hear as a disconnect between timbral interest and compositional/player execution. On “Rockers,” the disc’s conclusion, a beautifully translucent melodic section, pervaded by chimes, and a freer answering component give way to a bizarre vamp with wah-wahed winds and percussion signifying nothing. The same can be said of “Eddie and Cameron Strike Back”’s concluding section; after a delightfully grungy, if misguided, solo by guest bassist Eddie Prendergast, what follows has very little to do with the rest of the tune, and the fade-out just adds another layer of frustration.
Griping aside, each of the eight originals here has a lot to offer, whether it be an interesting framework or a solo flight of fancy. Particularly noteworthy is Steven Bernstein’s slide trumpet playing on the title track, a really beautiful and untamed sound that needs to be heard to be appreciated. Quite another story is the Band classic “Jemima Surrender.” Even a few moments of polymetric percussion laced with melodic interplay can’t save this heavy-handed chart. It’s the single misfire on what is, overall, a good disc of big band music.