Sunday, March 09, 2008

A Phat Time Was Again Had By All

For the second time in slightly less than a year, I had the privilege of hearing Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band last night. Last time, I had to fly to St. Louis for the opportunity, but this time, they were just a few hours away in Stephenville.

Before writing this review, I decided to peruse last year's entry, so that I wouldn't duplicate my efforts too much. I then realized, upon searching the archives, that I had managed to write about three-fourths of that one without ever completing it or hitting the "Post" button. (D'oh.) So first, let me point you to that review (so that all my previous work wasn't for naught), and then I'll compare and contrast the two shows. Go ahead; I'll wait.


Are you back? OK, here goes:

Once again, the concert opened with "High Maintenance" from XXL. But it was a different night from the start, because the two celebrated lead players who weren't in St. Louis a year ago--altoist Eric Marienthal and trumpet titan Wayne Bergeron--were back in the fold tonight. Marienthal brought high energy and squealy, Sanbornish altissimo to his solos (one of my friends in attendance said that he out-Sanborned Sanborn on "Play That Funky Music"), while Bergeron, as always, nailed everything in an almost unhumanly clean manner (he was also spelled very nicely by second trumpeter Dan Fornero, a One O'Clock alumnus). The presence of these two guys alone added greatly to the thrill factor, and the audience of high-schoolers (most of whom had performed at the Tarleton Jazz Festival earlier in the day) ate it up.

The band played a lot of its best-known charts ("Count Bubba's Revenge," "Samba del Gringo," "Swingin' for the Fences"), but it was never formulaic; indeed, a lot of the tunes sported new intros, so we were never sure if what we were hearing was a classic or something brand-new. A special treat was a new number, "Back Row Politics," that featured the trumpet section dueling it out front-and-center. Once again, every member got a chance to shine on at least one tune, and everyone concerned is a master of his instrument (and Goodwin, who gave himself a fine tenor solo in addition to his piano and bandleader duties, ia a master of two).

I suppose it could be said that this band isn't for everyone; there's still a lot of shtick involved (including the trivia contest; I won't reveal any of the answers, but some of them were really humorous), and the band is polished to a high West Coast sheen, but the level of musicianship in this ensemble rises above everything else, and that alone makes this band worth hearing (even traveling several states away, like I did last time). The fact that Goodwin is also engaging and funny as a leader is, to me, a feature and not a bug. I've seen way too many concerts where the musicians didn't talk to the audience at all, and, while such high-mindedness might in a way be admirable, there's something to be said for connecting with people on a personal level and a musical level.

This was the Big Phat Band's first visit to Texas; I hope they come again very soon.

And now for a bit of arts advocacy: One thing that really stood out tonight was the rabid enthusiasm of the crowd. Sure, I've seen that same energy level at Maynard concerts before, but these guys were treated like rock stars. And to me, that's a good thing; can this be replicated on a larger scale?

Some of the friends I was with pointed out that it was possible that this was the best jazz these kids had ever heard, and indeed, they may not have ever heard a big band that was better than their own before. It's also possible that a lot of their enthusiasm was brought about by someone who plays their instrument taking a solo (I remember those moments in my own youth). But still, it's great to see this many people getting this excited about a jazz concert; we need to grow this idea.

Goodwin mentioned that pretty much everyone in the band had once sat where these kids were tonight--in the audience of a jazz festival, listening to a smokin' band, and maybe realizing that this was what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives (his own such moment came in seventh grade!). He noted that, as they all got older, they realized that not too many people would pay money for people to play jazz, so lots of them had to take soul-sucking day jobs like playing for things like American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, but the handsome paychecks from such things allowed the band to be able to do things like come to Texas and play at last night's concert.

While I realize that jazz will probably never again have the wide appeal of pop music, perhaps the jazz audience can still be grown by making sure that jazz programs are available in as many schools as possible--yes, even the middle schools (this is commonplace in New England, so I hear). It's crucial that music educators take at least one jazz course (hopefully more!) during their college studies, and it's really important for them to make the time to have this great American art form as part of the curriculum. The reward should be obvious: People who are really excited about music and practicing, even larger audiences like the one last night, and kids who grow up to be patrons of the music and who encourage their own kids to participate.

To my fellow music educators: If you're doing this already, keep up the good work. If you're not, it's time to jump in with both feet; it's well worth the effort.

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