Gordon Goodwin -- "When I decided to put a big band together, my life came into balance."
By Rick Nowlin Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Big Phat Band, arguably one of the top newer big bands in America, was originally conceived as a one-off recording project.
The group, originally comprising some of Los Angeles' best studio musicians, has since evolved into a legitimate performing entity. It rolls into the Pittsburgh area Thursday, performing at Kiski Area High School.
The appearance at Kiski is somewhat of a quirk. The band put out a notice asking if any school in a 90-mile radius of Youngstown, Ohio, where it was scheduled to play, was interested in having the band put on a clinic for students. Kiski followed up on that offer. So the band will give a clinic Thursday afternoon and perform at night.
Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band
With: Kiski Area Jazz Ensemble.
Where: Kiski Area High School, 240 Hyde Park Road, Allegheny Township, Westmoreland County.
The BPB is the brainchild of Gordon Goodwin, who writes all the music -- "that's what I bring to the table" -- serves as pianist and takes an occasional tenor saxophone solo. He focuses on composing and arranging.
"There are a lot of good piano and saxophone players, but I realized [there weren't] a lot of composers," he said.
Mr. Goodwin, 55, is a Wichita, Kan., native whose teacher parents moved to the Los Angeles area when he was 2. He fell in love with big-band jazz while listening to, among others, Count Basie and his orchestra, and began writing arrangements in seventh grade. He was a saxophone major at California State University at Northridge, which he says had a similar reputation on the West Coast to places such as the Berklee or Eastman schools of music. Consequently, he had access to some of the musical greats who were based there.
"Louis Bellson used to bring arrangements all the time," Mr. Goodwin says. "Gerald Wilson used to teach at the college -- I used to pester him about big-band writing."
That allowed Mr. Goodwin to hone another skill -- orchestration.
After leaving school, he did theme park music for Disneyland, which he called "a great training ground in the 1980s." Eventually, he found work conducting for singer Johnny Mathis. That turned into a career-long association and he now is writing charts for a Johnny Mathis Christmas record.
That and other session work he does pay for the Big Phat Band, he says.
And while the session work paid the bills, he still wanted to do his own thing. So he decided to fulfill his seventh-grade ambition.
"When I decided to put a big band together, my life came into balance," Mr. Goodwin says. "Once I got the courage to do that, things became easier, the pressure lifted."
The band released its first recording, "Swinging for the Fences," in January 2001. Because it comprised studio musicians it wasn't supposed to be a touring band, Mr. Goodwin says. The use of the hip-hop-inspired term "phat" -- an acronym for "pretty hot and tempting" and used to describe a girl -- was deliberate because he wanted to perform music not necessarily tied to the past.
Not originally intending to do more than one record, Mr. Goodwin found that he had created a buzz with it.
"Once we started to get gigs, we remembered that the point of it is to play for people and communicate," Mr. Goodwin says. By the time "The Phat Pack," the third record, was released in 2006, the band was starting to get a sound.
As far as comparing themselves to other bands, "We don't try to be the same or different," Mr. Goodwin says. "I think that's the only way to be honest. We've gotten some criticism from traditional jazz media when we play rock 'n' roll or funk -- I believe in [traditional big band jazz], but I also believe in Tower of Power or the John Williams film cue." Indeed, "The Phat Pack" contains a cover of Wild Cherry's 1970s smash "Play That Funky Music," with David Sanborn as guest. The band released its seventh CD, "That's How We Roll," in April 2011.
While the identity of most band members would be unknown to the casual fan, two members of the saxophone section do have some notoriety. Lead altoist Eric Marienthal got his big break with Chick Corea's Elektric Band and tenorist Brian Scanlon did a couple of fusion records in the 1980s with trumpeter Jeff Tyzik.
Part of what Mr. Goodwin believes is the band's appeal is the fun it has on stage and that it translates to the audience.
Some folks have the attitude, Mr. Goodwin says, that "jazz can't be entertaining or you have to be a heroin addict or starving artist. When we play, we understand what a gift we have to play music [because] we recognize that it could go away. I think the audience loves to see a group playing that way."
Mr. Goodwin's success with the BPB has had an unexpected and welcome consequence.
"Sammy Nestico [the North Side native who arranged for the Basie band] is my friend now," Mr. Goodwin says, "and I've been able to tell him that he changed my life."