GRAMMY -winning pianist/saxophonist/bandleader Gordon Goodwin and his 18-piece Big Phat Band have bucked the mainstream for fifteen years. Although they emerged during the neo-swing wave that surged in the late 1990s, they have outlasted just about every big band from that period and built a consistent and loyal following despite the ever-changing whims of musical fashion since those early years.
In that time, Goodwin and his crew have released seven studio albums that merge the traditional big band sounds of the 1930s and ‘40s with a very contemporary vibe. Since 2003, they've scored three GRAMMY Awards and an impressive 16 GRAMMY nominations. Simply put, they've made a career out of mining an art form that's more than 70 years old and taking it to a place that's very contemporary and even progressive.
Despite that innovative philosophy that has been at the foundation of the Big Phat Band since its earliest days, something unsettling has become apparent to Goodwin: in an age of universal access to unlimited amounts of information, people are actually growing less connected and increasingly isolated. He and the Big Phat Band explore that sense of isolation in their new recording, Life in the Bubble, set for release on Telarc, a division of Concord Music Group.
"More and more, we all exist within the walls of our own little bubbles," says Goodwin. "We are able to specifically select the things we consume in a manner that specifically fit our tastes - which is great, but also rather limiting when you think about it. Especially when it comes to music. The musical philosophy of the Big Phat Band has, from the beginning, pushed back at these kinds of limits. This is a band made up of a group of musicians with diverse interests, and wide skill sets, and we have always strove to break down barriers between musical styles."
And they do just that, from the first notes of the title track that opens the set. It's a syncopated, funk-flavored composition that Goodwin admits to being "quite different from anything we've done before," as it combines a variety of rhythmic textures from start to finish. "The band does a great job of nailing some pretty complex figures, but when it comes time to groove, they know what to do," says Goodwin. "So does Brian Scanlon, who plays a great tenor solo that services the style without getting too frantic and losing his strong melodicism. The chart definitely keeps us on our toes, but everyone steps up with a vigorous performance."
The uptempo but breezy followup track, "Why We Can't Have Nice Things," is the band's opportunity to show how they like to "jump in and devour charts like this," says Goodwin. Especially noteworthy here are alto saxophonist Kevin Garren and trombonist Andy Martin, "who both contribute rousing solos that show their amazing energy and endurance," he adds.
Further into the sequence, in the spirit of defying barriers and preconceptions, "The Passage" is a ballad that runs slightly askew of the Big Phat Band's usual high-energy style, and features alto saxophonist Eric Marienthal in a groove that's atypical of his usual fare. "His playing on this ballad shows his great sound and pitch and also his knowledge of the big band alto solo tradition," says Goodwin, "but done in a more contemporary manner."
Easygoing and sassy, "Does This Chart Make Me Look Phat" was inspired by composer and bandleader Sammy Nestico, whose work first inspired Goodwin to write for big bands as early as grade school. "Sammy's music has such a spirit and optimism, with a strong sense of melody, and I did my best to emulate that," says Goodwin. "And the Phat Band responds with one of the more swinging performances in its history." He credits this achievement to the work of lead trumpeter Dan Fornero and soloists Willie Murillo (trumpet) and Jeff Driskill (tenor sax), both of whom bring "just the right balance of passion and coolness."
The album takes a playfully nostalgic turn with the Big Phat Band's lively rendition of "Get Smart," the theme from the 1960s TV spy spoof and more recent big-screen adaptation. Originally written for the TV show by Irving Szathmary, the tune was later rearranged by Goodwin when he worked on the score to the 2008 film version.
"Our version combines the vibe of the original ‘60s version and our own thing," says Goodwin, "one of which is the great Eric Marienthal, who hits it hard here and delivers a nicely constructed solo with the right amount of funky licks surrounded by imaginative content. But putting the real sizzle in this chart s lead trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, whose huge sound and razor sharp sense of time keeps the ensemble locked in, moving forward."
The shimmering and lively "On Green Dolphin Street" is Goodwin and the Big Phat Band's tribute to piano jazz legend Oscar Peterson, based in a song that Peterson occasionally played in concert, which serves as the launch point for Goodwin's own piano solo. Trumpeter Bob Summers weighs in with a burning bebop solo, while trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, trombonist Andy Martin and alto saxophonist Sal Lozano guide their sections expertly.
"On Green Dolphin Street," recently won the GRAMMY for Best Instrumental Arrangement at the 2014 GRAMMY-Awards presentation. "Stepping into Oscar's shoes was a great challenge for me as a pianist, and I really grew from the experience," says Goodwin. "It was definitely an honor to share the spotlight for a minute with one of the all-time great artists in musical history."
The set closes with the no-holds-barred "Party Rockers," featuring guest vocalist Judith Hill (who was recently featured in the film 20 Feet From Stardom), who also wrote the piece. The track is "clearly the biggest stylistic departure on the record," says Goodwin. "It grooves relentlessly, and Judith is fierce on it. She is quickly working her way into the ranks of elite vocalists, and we are proud to add her name to the list of esteemed vocal talent that our band has recorded and performed with."
Is Life in the Bubble successful in finding a way past the comfort zones that we've established for ourselves in this era of instant access and instant gratification? "You be the judge," says Goodwin, "but to my ears, there are moments on this record where we push the barrier of our current bubble, and those are the moments I love."
The preeminent Grammy-winning big band leader, Gordon Goodwin, and his Big Phat Band return with another dose of impeccable arrangements and big band fun on this new release. It includes seven originals, along with the GRAMMY-winner for Best Instrumental Arrangement - "On Green Dolphin Street,” the "Get Smart” theme, and "Party Rockers” featuring the vocals of Judith Hill (featured in "20 Feet From Stardom”).