By Don Heckman
The performance by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band at Vitello’s Friday night was a hearty reminder of the decades when big bands were the stars of popular music. Some of those bands – Count Basie, Duke Ellington – were firmly rooted in jazz. Others – Sammy Kaye, Guy Lombardo – played music primarily for dancing. And still others – Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller – did both. Something for most musical tastes, in other words, during an era in which jazz qualities were so strongly present in the music – with even the Kayes and the Lombardos occasionally dipping into jitterbug-pleasing swing rhythms – that jazz and pop music were virtually synonymous.
But no more, of course, at least since the arrival of the electric guitar. To saxophonist/pianist Goodwin’s credit, however, he continues to keep a band alive – via the attractions of his writing and the qualities of the Phat Band’s players – that remains firmly in touch with the appealing qualities of the big Swing bands. And thoroughly receptive to its contemporary surroundings, as well.Friday’s opening set provided an impressive display of all those qualities. Among the highlights: Goodwin’s Grammy-nominated arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue and his original composition – also Grammy-nominated – Hunting Wabbits 3 (Get Off My Lawn).
The Gershwin classic was rendered with a rhythmic panache that energized all its inherent jazz qualities, especially aided by the clarinet work of Sal Lozano and the stunning trumpet of Wayne Bergeron. One suspects that Gershwin would have been pleased.
So, too for Wabbits, Goodwin’s third installment of this cartoon-inspired theme, a quirky, musically whimsical reminder of how much the animation world of Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Woody Woodpecker was inspired by jazz. Here, as elsewhere throughout the set, the band’s ever-present rhythmic vitality was propelled by the dynamic drumming of Bernie Dresel.
Another Goodwin original, “Race To the Bridge,” was a kind of jazz concerto grosso featuring each of the band’s stellar sections. The result was a display of sheer musical excitement.
The evening’s only hiccup took place during the guest artist section, which featured singer Becky Martin and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Martin was ebullient and assertive in a lively version of “Cheek To Cheek,” and Sandoval offered some of his familiar Dizzy Gillespie recollections in “Night in Tunisia.” Neither piece, however – with the exception of a saxophone section harmonization of Charlie Parker’s famous high speed break in “Night in Tunisia” – did enough to sustain the spirited qualities of the Big Phat Band in action.
But that’s a small carp for an evening of memorable musical pleasures. If anyone’s looking for a convincing template of how to bring the big bands back to the center of American music…check out Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band.