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Beat the Big Bull

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October is a big month for Fight the Big Bull. Matt White's avant-fun ensemble is playing at The Stone, the New York City club at the center of the creative music universe, and the big band is celebrating its first year of biweekly gigs at Cous Cous with a Halloween dance party featuring a song-by-song cover of Michael Jackson's '80s megahit "Thriller."

It's not the first time the band has interpreted an entire album. At the release party for its self-titled debut CD, the group delivered a rollicking interpretation of Weezer's "Blue Album." The set ended with an enthusiastic, standing-room-only singalong. There's footage on YouTube, but it's a pale shadow of the actual scene. Add 30 years and 30 pounds, lose the hair or turn it gray, and it might be a PBS pledge week special, but that night had the bittersweet magic of a youthful generation's first joyous embrace of nostalgia.

"The idea was to get a ton of people there and have a party atmosphere," White says. "And so we could mess with something outside of the jazz idiom. Weezer was such a success I was thinking of what album to do next."

"Thriller" is different in a lot of ways, a multiplatinum juggernaut rather than an indie charmer such as the "Blue Album." And it doesn't bring back as many memories for the 20-somethings, who never experienced the King of Pop at his eccentric (but not yet creepy) peak. "I was two when it was recorded," White says.

Working through the songs uncovered the classical big-band bones that "Thriller" arranger Quincy Jones hid under the funky commercial skin. "Everything is in sections, in even bars of eight or 16; the solos are all 32 bars," White says. "It's the ultimate dance album, and it's a reminder that jazz used to be dance music, even though it hasn't been part of the aesthetic since the '60s."

The band will have to master the charts just a week after its New York debut at The Stone. Playing there is a huge accomplishment for a Richmond band. It's not just a matter of being hired; groups have to be sponsored by an established musician who then curates the show. ("I lived in New York for a long time," FTBB saxophonist Jason Scott says, "but I didn't get to play The Stone until I moved to Richmond.")

In Fight the Big Bulls' case, the champion is trumpeter/composer/bandleader Steve Bernstein. "Getting in touch with him was the best thing I ever did," White says. An e-mail sent to an address found on a Web site led to a phone conversation and then a long day together in New York City talking about music, business and life. It was a turning point for White -- and a major affirmation.

"The first time he heard our charts he said it would be impossible to put together a group in New York who could play them," White says. "There are an amazing group of musicians in Richmond; just because we are a small city doesn't mean we're the B-team."

Originally from Virginia Beach, White says he chose Virginia Commonwealth University in large part because he was a huge fan of Brian Jones and Agents of Good Roots (whose members broke up when he was in high school but remain in the area). He credits Doug Richards for providing him with his arranging skills — "although I was never a stellar student," White admits. And he attributes his ability to biggify his original trio (Fight the Bull with Bryan Hooten and Pinson Chanselle) into a stable octet-plus to his central role as one of the organizers of the Patchwork Collective, along with Scott Burton and Chris Elford.

Celebrating a year at Cous Cous with another big party, White feels everything is going to plan. "There aren't a whole lot of pseudo-free jazz gigs in the country," he says. "The band is like a family; we try not to have rules, but everybody has a role. We have eight instruments, a lot of musical history and our imaginations. After that the only test is, 'Does it sound cool?'" S



Fight the Big Bull re-creates "Thriller" at Cous Cous Wednesday, Oct. 31, at 10 p.m. $5. 358-0868.



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