Gordon Goodwin: The Phat Boys Are Back

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Gordon Goodwin
By Rex Bullington
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Gordon Goodwin
By Rex Bullington

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Gordon Goodwin is on a mission. As a champion of a modern big-band sound and the kind of music education that launched his career, he’s carrying on the swing tradition with Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. But the Los Angeles-based, 18-member ensemble performs jazz standards only occasionally; instead, the seven-year-old band’s repertoire is made up of Goodwin’s buoyant compositions and dizzying arrangements of pop, jazz and R&B tunes. The group’s fusion can be heard on its latest album, The Phat Pack (Silverline). The CD features guest appearances by Dianne Reeves, David Sanborn and Take 6—all Grammy winners happy to take a ride on this sonic roller coaster of brass, sass and swing.

A 2006 Grammy winner for arranging “The Incredits,” a dynamic piece from the animated Pixar hit The Incredibles, Goodwin looks something like an adult 3-D version of the film’s character Dash. (For those unfamiliar with the movie, Dash is the son whose super skills are lightning speed and energy.) Goodwin’s Grammy helped raise the profile of his Big Phat Band, in which the youthful 50-something also plays piano and saxophone.

Swinging like Goodman and bragging like Basie, with equal parts Lalo Schifrin, Henry Mancini and Bugs Bunny, the Big Phat Band is both traditional and progressive. In title and tone, the music displays Goodwin’s upbeat sense of humor, honed by years working on Warner Bros. cartoons. Even the name of the band speaks to Goodwin’s mission and humor. “We call the current band the Big Phat Band, and that’s just our way of saying it’s not your father’s big band,” says Goodwin. “That term, however dated it is in the hip-hop world, it kind of also describes a bigness and a largeness and a fun thing.”

Established as a Hollywood orchestrator, composer and arranger for hire with credits that include Con Air, Armageddon and Gone in 60 Seconds, Goodwin sees the Big Phat Band as an outlet for his creative impulses as well as a model for future musicians. Goodwin’s charts are among the most popular with junior- and high-school bands across the country, and the bandleader likes to give back when he can by performing at schools, where Big Phat is often greeted like rock stars by teens who snap up its CDs and T-shirts.

A sunny afternoon back in March found Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band playing just such a gig at Los Alamitos High School in suburban Southern California. After three promising performances by student ensembles, Goodwin and his crew took to the stage to show the youngsters how it’s done. With Goodwin conducting from a borrowed electric piano, the band motored through the Latin “Samba del Gringo,” the swirling swing of “Count Bubba’s Revenge,” the hurdy-gurdy “Hunting Wabbits II: A Bad Hare Day” and the ballsy funk of Wild Cherry’s ’70s jam “Play That Funky Music.” This was no somber educational display of America’s oldest indigenous art form: The vibe was that of a jazz party that in dancehalls of yore would have jumpstarted some serious jitterbugging.

“These are the hippest gigs we do, on the front line of music education,” Goodwin told the audience, revealing what galvanizes this group of otherwise occupied musical professionals: love of the craft and a desire to pass it on to the next generation.

The Big Phat Band includes saxophonist Eric Marienthal, also a member of the Chick Corea Elektric Band and a smooth-jazz soloist. The guitar chair is most often held by Grant Geissman, longtime guitarist for Chuck Mangione and composer of music for TV’s Two and a Half Men. Wayne Bergeron, whose powerful playing has embellished recordings by Tito Puente, Diane Schuur, Dianne Reeves, Henry Mancini and Ray Charles leads the trumpet section. Drummer Bernie Dresel is a journeyman known for his work with the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Every man in the band can boast a long list of recording credits and outside commitments, but they remain devoted to Goodwin’s Big Phat Band concept.

Keeping a jazz band together in today’s culture and economy is something of a magician’s trick, but Goodwin manages to keep the rabbits popping out of his proverbial hat. Retaining members and getting them on the road together remain the Big Phat Band’s most daunting challenges. The group has played festivals, consistently appeared at the annual International Association for Jazz Education conferences and in 2005 made a trip to Asia for the opening of Disneyland Hong Kong. The schedule for 2006 includes school appearances, a Canadian festival appearance and tentative plans for shows on the East Coast and overseas this fall.

What rallies the Big Phat Band is enthusiasm for the in-your-face, genre-busting arrangements seldom found at its studio recording sessions or other side gigs. A set list can move from bop to swing, rock to funk, classical to lounge. Goodwin is also fond of upbeat tempos, swirling arpeggios, blistering multi-horn attacks, contrapuntal melodies, and tricky stop-and-go rhythms. As veteran arranger and composer Johnny Mandel notes, “Gordon Goodwin has extended the possibilities of all the different kinds of music that can be played by a big band.”

Marienthal agrees: “One of the things I like the most about the way Gordon writes for this band is how diverse his music is. As a player, it presents a great challenge to be asked to play all sorts of different styles. The Big Phat Band is at home playing just about anything, which I’m sure is by Gordon’s design. I think that’s why the audiences get so excited at the shows. They’re getting to hear a wide variety of musical styles that all hang together in a great way.”

Goodwin says he’s come to rely on each member of his committed crew to embody the band’s sound and often writes to the players’ strengths. “It’s turned into what Duke Ellington had, where he would write specifically for the guys in the band, and the sum total of all those guys produces the sound you get,” he says. “If Eric Marienthal or Wayne Bergeron isn’t there, it just sounds different.”

He admits that while his elaborate charts can be fun, they can also be exhausting. “I had one guy quit because he said it gave him a headache,” Goodwin says. “He said, ‘There’s so much energy I have to put out, and I just can’t do it anymore.’ It’s tough, especially for brass players, because as they get older they don’t have the stamina anymore. The music that we perform is risky music for them.”

Also notable is the camaraderie among band members, many of whom have known or played with one another for years. “One reason why it’s become so successful is that just about everybody in it has been working together and been friends for most of our careers,” says Marienthal, who first met Goodwin playing in a Disneyland ensemble.

Compensation for an 18-member outfit is always an issue. The Los Alamitos High School show represented a sacrifice in the service of mentorship. “I had two guys that turned down playing on Mission Impossible III to be there,” enthuses Goodwin. “They probably turned down $1,500 plus the residuals that come on the back end, so it’s a significant thing. And I’m so grateful that the guys like being there so much that they would do that.”

“If you join a big band to make a lot of money, then I bet you haven’t played in too many big bands before!” laughs Marienthal. “Everybody in this band is into it for the music, period. Each player is a successful professional musician who wants to be involved in this project because it’s so musically rewarding. We’ve actually had some nice-paying gigs and it’s always nice to make money but nobody’s into it for that. It’s amazing to me how Gordon and the people who work with him are able to pull off some of the tours that we’ve done. But again, I think it’s because everybody involved is having a blast just seeing the popularity of the band continue to grow like it has.”

Goodwin points to the legacy of big bands, where touring groups with or without a record deal often played without a steady paycheck. “Big-band musicians have really been underpaid the whole time, even back in the swing area from 1935 to 1945, which most people think of as the heyday,” he says. “The dirty little secret is those guys would do it for free. Well, not everybody but most of us do play for free—we love it so much we need to do it.”

The administration of the Big Phat Band falls to Goodwin’s wife, vocalist Lisa Goodwin, as well as an assistant, a publicist and band comanager and trumpeter Dan Savant. The group also includes the Silverline label’s promotion team. “It’s like a little corporation thing to keep this thing on the road—which is a misnomer because we’re not on the road. And it’s a part-time endeavor for all of us,” Goodwin adds.

The venerable William Morris Agency signed up the Big Phat Band soon after its second round of Grammy nominations, thanks to the recommendation of client Johnny Mathis, for whom Goodwin has conducted. But the hurdles inherent in booking a monster jazz band are clear to Goodwin: “We’re not cheap! You can’t get Eric Marienthal, Grant Geissman and Wayne Bergeron and all those guys for low bread. You can’t. Because even though those guys would say yes, they’re gonna get called for a tour or some high-paying thing two weeks before. And then I show up without Wayne? I can’t do it. I won’t do it.”

Goodwin is realistic about the flip side as well—with most of the guys in the band as well as himself holding down other commitments that keep them in Southern California, even a well-paid tour would pose problems: “If William Morris called me and said, ‘Hey by the way, we got 50 gigs for you next year,’ I’d be in trouble!

“If I stop doing my other work, I wouldn’t be able to afford it,” he adds. “Because when the band needs uniforms or if we need headshots, I gotta cover it. And if you talk to any big-band leader, with the exception of maybe Wynton [Marsalis] at Lincoln Center, those guys that have that kind of sponsorship, everyone’s paying for it themselves.”

Goodwin says he felt his calling as a composer early. Born in Wichita, Kan., and raised in Southern California, Goodwin began playing piano as a child and composed his first tune at 13. When he was a clarinetist in a school band, a beloved band director did him a favor: “He played me Basie Straight Ahead with arrangements by Sammy Nestico. It was like deja vu for me, I don’t know why. When I heard that record I felt like I was home.”

By high school he had picked up the saxophone and became a staple in local and regional bands through college, even performing summers at Disneyland. After graduation, he put in time in the saxophone sections for several L.A. big bands, playing with Louie Bellson and Bill Holman, among others. With a volume of original compositions in his head, Goodwin thought he might like to lead his own ensemble. “But I would observe the difficulties those guys had in doing a single gig and paying those guys,” Goodwin adds. “You’re gonna go to a club in L.A. and play a gig and walk out with $30 and you’re gonna live on that? Now a lot of those guys can do studio work and supplement, but I was scared to take that on.”

His facility for composing and arranging led him to the film studios, where he eventually won Emmys for his work on Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. But the desire to express his own brand of music wouldn’t go away. Jon Baker, a bassist friend who’d played with him at Disneyland, encouraged Goodwin to record his music—and even put up the money for him to do so. Goodwin called on musician pals and cut the self-produced 1983 album Close to the Edge under his own name. “We didn’t call it a big band because we were scared of the connotation. It just said Gordon Goodwin. I think that was a cowardly choice now,” he says.

More than 15 years went by before Baker once again gave his friend the nudge. Now called the Big Phat Band, the ensemble released 2000’s Swingin’ for the Fences on the tiny Silverline label. The album featured more than 30 musicians, including guest appearances by Eddie Daniels, Brandon Fields, Arturo Sandoval and Luis Conte. The set was also the first commercially released DVD Audio DualDisc recording, with music on one side and an enhanced 5.1 Surround Sound presentation of the music with video, commentary, charts, bios and CD-ROM material on the other.

“Our thought was ‘Let’s make a record and put it out—no gigs, no touring, no radio interviews.’ We’ve documented it and that will be enough,” Goodwin remembers. But the album began gathering acclaim, and soon calls for gigs came in. After being cooped up in studios for years, being in front of an audience again was bliss. Grammy nominations for the project proved encouraging, and four years later Goodwin gathered the troops for 2003’s XXL. The sophomore outing featured Johnny Mathis, saxophonist Michael Brecker, Take 6, vocalist Brian McKnight and clarinetist Eddie Daniels. Three Grammy nominations followed: best large jazz ensemble album, best instrumental composition (“Hunting Wabbits”) and best instrumental arrangement accompanying vocals (“Comes Love” with Brian McKnight and Take 6).

Take 6 singer Claude McKnight says the group loved working with Goodwin so much that the band signed on for the new Phat Pack album without hesitation and are looking forward to other projects with him. “We’ve done a lot of projects with other people over almost 20 years, and the experience of working with Gordon Goodwin and the Big Phat Band ranks up there with the most incredible experiences we’ve ever had,” says McKnight. “The arrangements that he does are off the meter. He’s one of the few—if not one of the only—people who’s actually arranged our vocals for us. He thinks a lot like we do. He’s crazy, he’s energetic and we love recording with him and the band.”

With so many good vibes surrounding Goodwin, the future looks bright for the reception of the Phat Pack album. “We try to make our music not accessible, because we don’t dumb it down, but we try to make it uplifting,” says Goodwin. “When you go see the Big Phat Band, I want you to leave there feeling better than when you came in.”

Gearbox

Selmer Mark VI Tenor Sax with Otto link 7* mouthpiece and Vandoren ZZ reeds

Yamaha Soprano Sax with Selmer Paris S80 mouthpiece, Vandoren V-16 reeds

Kawai six-foot acoustic piano

Yamaha P250 keyboard

Power Mac G5 Computer with Digital Performer 4.61, Finale 2006 and soft-synths: Spectrasonics’ Trilogy Bass, RMX Stylus, Atmosphere, Synthology Ivory acoustic piano

Two PC computers running Giga Studio 3 (TASCAM sampling and mixing program)

Mackie D8B Digital Mixer

Originally published in June 2006

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