Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Phat Time Was Had By All

For the second time in seven months, I found myself traveling across several states to hear a jazz concert, and, also for the second time, it was totally worth the trip.

This time, the group that prompted the plane-hopping was Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, a collection of top L.A. studio musicians, who performed at the Univeristy of Missouri-St. Louis Touhill Performing Arts Center last night. While Goodwin is a veteran composer/arranger (known for tunes with quirky titles like "Let's Eat Cactus" and "Mama Llama Samba" (say that ten times fast!), as well as the soundtrack to the admittedly awful movie, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes), he came to prominence back in 2001 with the release of the Big Phat Band's debut, Swingin' for the Fences, which featured such tunes as "Sing, Sang, Sung" (a clever remake of the Benny Goodman classic "Sing, Sing, Sing") and "Count Bubba."

Since then, Goodwin has become a household name in the big-band world, and his charts have sold like hotcakes in the educational world (one of the stories he told during the show concerned a jazz festival where "Count Bubba" was performed by six bands in a row). When the band first started making recordings (there are three in all, with a fourth one about to be started), their only purpose was to document the music and leave it at that. The feasibility of touring seemed unlikely, considering the players' day jobs, but after a few gigs, the band was bitten by the live-performance bug, and the past few years have brought them to places like the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival, where they played to an enthusiastic near-sellout crowd, many of whom were young musicians who had played Goodwin's charts.

The band wasted no time getting down to business, opening with the rollicking "High Maintenance" off their second album, XXL. (In one ironic twist, a worker at the "swag table" downstairs was overheard telling a potential customer that they were all out of that particular T-shirt size even before the show began.) For the next two hours, buffeted by only a short intermission, the band played high-energy, totally swinging jazz that was as tight as the recordings, mixing older favorites ("Count Bubba's Revenge," "Hunting Wabbits") with selections from the forthcoming album (which, if the tunes they played last night are any indication, will be a buy-on-the-first-day candidate upon its release).

Even though two of the best-known members of the band, lead trumpeter Wayne Bergeron and lead alto Eric Marienthal, were not able to make this performance, their replacements (ex-One O'Clocker Pete DeSiena, who's recorded with the band before, and second alto Sal Lozano, respectively) did a fine job in their absence--DiSiena nailing the high notes left and right, and Lozano doing a fine job of channeling David Sanborn on "Play That Funky Music."

The Big Phat Band is best-known for two things: lots of energy (as evidenced by Goodwin leaping back and forth from the piano to give cues and fermatas, along with the manic energy of percussionist Brad Dutz; drummer Bernie Dresel was also quite fun to watch) and the uniqueness of Goodwin's writing. Having done extensive film scoring and writing for the likes of Disney Studios, Goodwin brings that orchestral approach to his big-band charts, and the result is a much wider palette than that of many other writers; at times, it's almost as if each tune is its own little movie.

One of the cool things about this concert was that it gave virtually every member of the band his time to shine in some way. I'd have no problem hiring any of these guys for a gig, but the personal favorites were trombonist extraordinaire Andy Martin (whom I'd seen as the guest artist at TCU a few weeks ago), guitarist Grant Geissman (a Chuck Mangione alum from the "Feels So Good" days), and a former schoolmate, tenorman Jeff Driskill.

As a leader, Goodwin is engaging and funny. Sure, there's a lot of shtick involved, and there were elements of the show that could be called cheesy, including a "Big Phat Band trivia" game that featured high school kids from the audience. (Some of the trivia was pretty funny, but I won't ruin the jokes here.) But it was great to hear a high-powered big band that, when all is said and done, is brimming with excellent musicianship.

It was cool to see this band in the very same auditiorium where I'd seen the Maynard tribute back in September, and in a way it was quite fitting; among all the talk of who would take over the Maynard mantle, maybe it won't be a star soloist after all (although Goodwin is no slouch on either piano or tenor); maybe it'll be this exciting big band that packs the house full of young jazzers for years to come.

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