By Michael Katz
If you have never seen Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band in a Small, Close Room, it is an experience I would heartily recommend. For sheer excitement, it is about the closest thing to actually being in the band – if you are a musician or just an air saxophone player, you will be tempted to stand up and take a solo. Friday night, the eighteen musicians occupied every nook and cranny of the stage at Vitello’s. The guitarist seemed to be sitting in your lap. The conga player was wedged between Goodwin’s piano and the back wall — his rhythms floating unseen from the direction of Laurel Canyon. The baritone sax player was perched just in front of the curtained stage entrance; one step backward and he could have been the Wizard of Oz. The drummer, Bernie Dresel, sat smack in the middle of all this, cool and hip in black-rimmed glasses, looking like Steve Allen reincarnated in an argyle sweater.
If you are an acoustic purist, this may not be for you. There are just too many sounds colliding and reverberating between the low ceiling and around the walls. But that is hardly the point. This is a musical Funhouse. It’s a chance to get up close to precision section playing and scorching solos, not to mention a few young players who have infiltrated the roster of Goodwin’s veteran group of LA session men.
Goodwin, who handles the arrangements and plays mostly piano now, started this band a decade ago. He’s developed a rousing, hard swinging sound that borrows liberally from all points of the American jazz scene – over two sets Friday night there were nods to Benny Goodman, George Gershwin, Diz, Herbie and even Elmer Fudd. It’s all done with panache, humor and Goodwin’s trademark in-the-pocket groove, dominated by a front line of saxophones that doubles impressively on flutes and clarinets.
The first set featured tunes from the BPB’s most recent album, That’s How We Roll, opening up with the title cut. A typical foot-stomping Goodwin piece, it featured Francisco Torres, best known for anchoring the trombone section of the Poncho Sanchez Band, and Willie Murillo, the lead trumpet soloist most of the night. “Howdiz Songo” followed with a lilting piano riff by Goodwin, Joey De Leon’s congas bubbling up from behind. A couple of newer names made their presence felt: Katisse Buckingham is a fine young saxophonist who doubled on flute and Andrew Synoweic showed his versatility on guitar.
Goodwin won a 2012 Grammy for his shape-shifting arrangement of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Another young reed player, Kevin Garren, opened it up with a stirring clarinet solo. The tempo shifted to an aggressive swing, featuring Bob Summers on trumpet, then laid back for a Dorsey-like trombone burst from Charlie Morillas. Finally Murillo took over on trumpet as the tempo assumed a rollicking strip tease tone, perhaps not exactly what Gershwin had in mind, but who’s to say?
Singer Becky Martin, who I’d heard with Arturo Sandoval last month, stepped in for two numbers. It is especially hard belting out a tune over an 18 piece band in such a small room, but Martin carried an up-tempo version (was there anything else?) of “Cheek To Cheek” and followed with a persuasive interpretation of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night In Tunisia,” augmented by Murillo’s homage to Diz.
There were only two ballads over the evening, placed in penultimate positions of each set. Guitarist Synowiec had a nice casual feel to “Everlasting” in the first set with Goodwin accompanying him gracefully on the piano. The same spot in the second set brought Goodwin back on tenor sax with a samba-like rendition of “I Remember,” from the BPB’s first album. Bob Summers delivered some soulful work on the flugelhorn with harmonic support from the woodwinds, alternating from an all flute background to a medley of saxophones. And speaking of stellar section work, the trombones, who had carried less solo work most of the night, performed beautifully in “It’s Not Polite To Point” with Jason Thor and Craig Gosnell joining Torres and Morillas in a perfect blending of the four horns.
Mostly, though, it was the rip-roaring numbers that had the capacity crowd on their feet. There was “Hunting Wabbits III,” the third variation of Goodwin’s salute to the Warner Brothers cartoon themes. “Sing Sang Sung,” which opened up the second set, is based on Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” and featured more great clarinet work by Kevin Garren. Lead tenor man Brian Scanlon, after losing a pad on his horn, borrowed Goodwin’s and blew through “Rippin’ N Runnin’ from the new album. By the time the Big Phat Band finished off the night with “The Jazz Police,” highlighted by percussionist Joey DeLeon and drummer Bernie Dresel tearing things up, the audience and band alike were on the edge of exhaustion.
Which is the way it ought to be. The next time I see this band it will be opening the main stage show at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September. I’m sure it will be great, but I won’t be sitting two feet from the band, trading eights in my mind with the horn section.
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