By Matt Silver
One great thing about staff here at KSDS is their versatility. General Manager Ken Poston basically built a jazz museum from scratch; Production Director Michael Rovatsos plays bass in the West Coast’s premier U2 tribute band, and "Phat Tracks" host Gordon Goodwin has won four Grammys and been nominated for over 20 more. Which is why when I went to City College’s Saville Theatre last Tuesday night to see and hear Goodwin preside over a radio program broadcast before a live audience, I wasn’t that surprised when a full-fledged big band concert broke out.
Musicians…they just can’t help themselves.
Of course, I kid. Alas, poor Yorick! I am, indeed, a man of infinite jest! I knew full well, for many weeks ahead of time, that Gordon Goodwin and his Big Phat Band (BPB) would figuratively blow the roof off of Saville Theatre in this most recent installment of Jazz Live: Best of the West; you don’t become one of the world’s preeminent large jazz ensembles without blowing the doors off a few concert halls. Still, I didn't quite understand fully what I was in for until the musicians hit it, and their sound hit me. See, that’s the thing about forces of nature like the Big Phat Band: You prepare, and they laugh. At 18 pieces strong (not counting vocalist Vangie Gunn), their sound combines max power and precision, like a knockout punch from Mike Tyson that you somehow really enjoy taking. Because instead of incapacitating you, it overwhelms your capacity to perceive anything else, closing all of the unnecessary windows open in your shallow unconscious and triggering a liberating, and exhilarating, hyper-focus.
And it’s not just their sound that’s arresting.
This band takes up space. Before issuing note one, it presents arms. Three levels of gleaming brass and, at the vanguard, a phalanx of saxophones shielded behind stately black bandstands, a veritable musical unit of the Praetorian Guard armed with woodwinds and a mandate: to corral every seat in the house within the blast radius of its heart-accelerating swing.
The BPB has satisfied that mandate in concert venues around the world, leaving audiences many times larger in thrall to their signature sound. Still, Goodwin and co. take nothing for granted; establishing energy, maintaining it, and narrowly tailoring it to each selection’s prescribed dynamics — the colors and textures unique to every Gordon Goodwin composition and arrangement — is the BPB’s secret sauce. It comes with every order, the size of the party notwithstanding. No omissions; no substitutions.
So, any thought that these guys were about to lay off the throttle because they happened to be playing before a smaller crowd was dispelled in short order. If anything, Goodwin seemed amped up to play before an audience who knew him not just as a bandleader, but as a broadcaster.
The Big Phat Band’s music is serious business that Gordon Goodwin approaches with a troublemaker’s smirk. Photo by Larry Redman.
Seeing him live, you sense quickly why he plays well on-air, too. Far from one of these musicians who approaches crowd work as a chore, Goodwin is a throwback showman with corny jokes that he pulls off with a winking, boyish charm. Rascal or wiseacre are the anachronistic adjectives one might employ to describe him. He looks entirely too young to be approaching 70, a cross between former Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown and a version of Billy Joel without the visible receipts of hard living. And he deftly laid this charming groundwork before captivating the intimate crowd in toto with a sound that, yes, was both big and f(ph)at…but not just that.
It almost goes without saying that Goodwin and co. do the high-octane stuff as good as, if not better, than any of their peers.
Their opener, “TOP Adjacent,” a send-up to Tower of Power and their horn-driven amalgamation of ’70s funk and soul, was simply intoxicating, a masterclass in groove-setting started by Goodwin’s opening keyboard vamping and anchored by a Stanley Clarke-sounding iteration of Kevin Axt on electric bass and the combination of Ray Brinker (drum set) and Joey Deleon (percussion). This rhythm section is the equivalent of a lights-out starting pitching staff. You start a big band with these guys, and you build your way out from there, filling your lineup with power hitters like Eric Marienthal. Marienthal, who sort of bookended the 90-minute set by taking two alto sax solos on this one before figuring prominently once again on the night’s closer, “Swinging for the Fences,” gets unfairly typecast as a “smooth jazz” player because, as it happens, he also kills in that idiom. But he’s a monster any way you slice it. Any doubters of his capacity to swing and swing hard (for the fences, in some instances) found themselves either promptly disabused or willfully trapped in a prison of their own wrongheadedness.
Lead alto saxophonist Eric Marienthal kills it in any setting. Photo by Larry Redman.
But the overarching takeaway of the evening was the band’s dynamic flexibility and Goodwin’s versatility as an arranger. Note well: this is more than a one-tempo, high-decibel band. Goodwin’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was a revelation, alternating between passages played with the precision—and intonation!— of a world-class pops orchestra and those played with the blustery panache of the Count Basie Orchestra and the tunefulness of Brubeck’s outings with the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s an arrangement that adds to the original on terms Gershwin would no doubt find palatable. Faithful to the original’s sensibility, Goodwin simultaneously succeeds in treating this quintessentially American work as something extant, still capable of growth, as opposed to conducting the mere restoration of a classic. It’s an achievement, and the folks who decide on the Grammys agreed. Goodwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” earned the maestro a win for Best Instrumental Arrangement in 2011, and, since then, it’s continued to affect audiences unlike any other tune in the band’s catalogue.
“It connects with audiences in a way I’ve never seen,” Goodwin said of his experience playing his version of Gershwin’s masterpiece. “We’ve played it all over the world, and it doesn’t matter where we are…it’s just something about these melodies that resonates with the human condition in a way that’s just incredible to watch.”
These guys love playing together, and it shows. From left: Joey Deleon (percussion), Tom Luer (tenor sax), Ray Brinker (drums). Photo by Larry Redman.
Even more insight into the human condition can be gained by watching the BPB’s musicians interact with one another. The communication between instrumentalists, mostly non-verbal, is constant and suggestive of a special chemistry. Sal Lozano, the great woodwinder who triples on alto sax, flute, and clarinet, seems to be the surrogate uncle of the saxophone section, doling out pearls of wisdom and atta-boys to younger section-mates and generally keeping things light and loose.
Saxophonist Sal Lozano is a founding member of the Big Phat Band, doubles on clarinet and flute, and is the consummate section-mate. Photo by Larry Redman.
At one point, I noticed the tenor sax player to Lozano’s right, I believe it was Tom Luer, fumbling underneath his seat, in search of what I assumed was a new reed. Lozano, literally without missing a beat, noticed this out of the corner of his eye, reached into his own bag under his seat while keeping his eyes on his music, handed Luer what looked like a new reed without any perceptible communication between them, and, maybe two beats later, cued the sax section back into their part, subtly curling the corner of his lips into the beginnings of a satisfied smile without compromising the integrity of his embouchure.
The band played on for about another 45 minutes after I found myself momentarily immersed in the subtle interpersonal dynamics of musicians at work. We heard a curiously meandering, totally improvised blues — “Blues Head Chart”— that proved not all melodies that wander are lost; a madcap tribute to Raymond Scott, the composer whose music became synonymous with America’s favorite televised cartoons and later inspirational to Goodwin’s Emmy-winning work on the Animaniacs (“Hunting Wabbits”); and a propulsive arrangement of the Gershwins’ and DuBose Hayward’s “Summertime.”
From left: Goodwin, guitarist Andy Waddell, and tenor saxophonist Tom Luer in the foreground. Photo by Larry Redman.
Now I can see how this last one might’ve been divisive for some folks, so let me offer my take. Featuring vocalist Vangie Gunn, Goodwin’s arrangement transforms the classic from a meditative lullaby into something with a much higher resting heart rate. This is the “Summertime” for the modern man or woman on the go. Something about it, maybe Goodwin’s pulsing piano vamp that undergirds the whole thing, calls to mind the frenetic but thrilling aesthetic of 1980s Los Angeles that only really died for good after Magic Johnson retired for the last time—the wheeling and dealing, Aaron Spelling, ice-block windows, Wolfgang Puck. People can be far too serious about music. It’s an intellectual pursuit, sure. In part. But it’s also about having fun. You know, the stuff kids do…that all of us develop bad habits trying to recapture as adults. The striking contrasts with the Gershwins’ conception are supposed to be striking. The thing pops. That should really be the end of the evaluation. I can envision the cobwebbed corners from which haters might emerge, fists shaking. “What would Gershwin say?” this fun-averse scold might ask, maybe wielding a yard stick in a threatening way. Well, I don’t know for certain, but I suspect Gershwin might say this person never really understood his music at all.