JazzReview.com—April 2011

Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band

That’s How We Roll

Artist Interview by Denis Poole

Composer and arranger Gordon Goodwin certainly has an impressive resume.  A 2006 GRAMMY Award winner for his arrangement of ‘Incredits’ from the Pixar film The Incredibles, Gordon has also enjoyed eleven more Grammy nominations and picked up three Emmy Awards along the way.  Not only that, since 2000, Goodwin has been the driving force behind his own creation Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band and when recently I talked with him from his studio in Los Angeles I was interested to know what had been his motivation for beginning what has now evolved into a modern day big band phenomenon.

“Well” Gordon began with a smile in his voice.  “I didn’t come up with the idea to perform live or to wrestle with the logistics of getting an eighteen piece band to the right place at the right time.  Musically I wanted to do something different.  I had been a fan of big band music since the 8th grade and felt I wanted to do something for me.  You know, with music that I really believed in rather than what I was being paid to believe in.”

“And had that worked out as planned?” I enquired.

“That first record, ‘Swinging For The Fences’ taught me a lot” Gordon told me.  “I had to learn how to go out and market a project and how to develop a technique for handling rejection.  I perfected the art of being persistent.  I have worked extensively with Johnny Mathis as his conductor.  When Johnny heard the album he really liked it and sent it on to Phil Ramone who in turn shared it with Concord.  The timing wasn’t quite right for that but then Dolby became aware of what I was doing.  In the event we couldn’t make a deal work but then Silverline showed an interest.  At the time the label was recognized as the quality and technology leader of DVD Audio and it proved to be a nice fit with what we were doing.

Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band is an eighteen piece ensemble that is often supplemented by guest artists.  From a financial standpoint, and given the tough economic times in which we all live, I wanted to know how Gordon was able to make the numbers stack up.

“Truth to tell” Gordon replied with refreshing honesty “they don’t always stack up.  That said, I am now signed to Telarc, which is a division of Concord Music Group, and the financial backing is much better.  Yet in reality I fuel my ‘big band habit’ with the money I am able to make elsewhere.  It’s the same when touring.  The band has been to both China and Japan but even then there was an opportunity cost, a realization that the entire band had probably turned down better paid work in order to make the trip.  What we do as a unit is based on our love of the music that we play and I believe this is what helps to keep it real.”

Although in many ways The Big Phat Band is all about evoking the big band sound of the likes of Ellington and Basie, every album has included at least one track that explores other genres and blurs the boundaries of just how far ‘big band’ can reach.  A case in point is the wonderful ‘September’ featuring Patti Austin from the band’s 2008 release ‘Act Your Age’.  I was eager to better understand the thought process behind this.

“I grew up embracing a wide range of musical interests” Gordon said, “and I’m attracted to incorporating them into what I do.  As well as big band, over the years I have been influenced by Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Blood Sweat & Tears, Earth Wind & Fire and the classics too.  I do know that some jazz purists have objected to the way we sometimes fray the margins but if that is the case then maybe The Big Phat Band is not for them.  The players in the band are some of the finest in LA.  They have been around, are at the top of their game and in playing a variety of styles, really understand the rules of the road.”

I had noted that the band’s brand new CD ‘That’s How We Roll’ was perhaps, in the traditional sense, more big band orientated than the previous release ‘Act Your Age’.  I asked Gordon if this slight change in direction had been deliberate.

“I agree that there has been change of direction” Gordon confirmed “and in many ways the sound we achieve is a function of the people I involve in the creative process.  ‘Act Your Age’ was produced by Lee Ritenour and he brought his own contemporary jazz influences to the party.  With ‘That’s How We Roll’ Gregg Field has pulled the project in a different direction.  I’m always looking for a different vibe, a different feel.”

As is customary with The Big Phat Band ‘That’s How We Roll’ also includes several notable guest artists.  I was curious to know Gordon’s rationale for selecting them.

“As I compose music” Gordon confided “I often envisage a tune instrument by instrument.  In fact the music that tends to get the greatest response from listeners is that which comes to me early and simply.  Not only that, as I compose, it helps if I can visualize the artist who might be best placed to play the piece of music in question.  Then I go right to the artist, I call them up and ask them.  That’s how Dave Koz, Gerald Albright and Take 6 all got involved.  I asked and they said yes.”

“Does anyone ever say no?” I questioned.

“Sometimes” Gordon replied without elaboration.

A personal favourite from ‘That’s How We Roll’ is the delicious ‘Just Enough’ which features Take 6.  I wondered if Gordon had composed it with them in mind.

“Totally” Gordon confirmed.  “I had done several projects with Take 6 and in addition am a huge fan.  I wrote the song with them entirely in mind.  My wife Lisa Goodwin added the lyrics and if people like it I’m glad.”

Another interesting number is ‘Rippin n Runnin’ which has the combined sax power of Eric Marienthal, Dave Koz and Gerald Albright all blowing up a total storm.  From the line-up one might have expected something along the lines of ‘smooth jazz meets big band’ but in fact the delightful outcome is three great players having fun with a different genre.  I asked Gordon what his intentions had been when marrying up these diverse talents.

“It’s funny” Gordon said. “I see ‘Rippin n Runnin’ as a funky, happy little tune which, part way in, takes a different direction.  It was fun to see how the guys dealt with that but I’m interested to hear your take on it too.  Being immersed in the music I’m often too close to fully comprehend the whole picture.  Take the track ‘It’s Not Polite To Point’ for example.  It was by no means certain that I would include it in on the album.  I wasn’t sure.  But when I ran it past my kids, they are like age 22, 20 and 14; they told me it just had to stay.  Sometimes it’s good to get a different point of view.”

That’s How We Roll’ is the Big Phat Band’s sixth release.  I queried if there might be a number seven.

“If there is” Gordon mused “I need to be making a start on it now.  It’s a dilemma.  Six albums in and there is always an expectation to reproduce the hallmark sound with which we have become associated yet artistically I want to keep on extending the boundaries.  So it’s a question of where to take the music next.  I’m thinking the time might be right to revisit the classics.  We did something of that on our debut recording and again in 2003 with ‘XXL’.  With ‘That’s How We Roll’ I have included the Gershwin classic ‘Rhapsody In Blue’.  That is such an amazing tune and has become a firm favourite in our live shows.  We played it at the Hollywood Bowl and the place went crazy.”

Finally I asked Gordon what fans of his Big Phat Band can look forward to in 2011.

“We have a tour for Japan that is on hold due to the earthquake” Gordon said “and we are also taking the band to Australia this year.  In the USA we are putting together a tour to promote the album.”

Built on a bed of technical excellence and a love for the music, the nostalgia ‘That’s How We Roll’ generates for the big band era never threatens originality.  Indeed, Gordon Goodwin has created a remarkably fresh piece of work that, without doubt, is one of the most interesting of the year so far.