A moment of truth: Gordon Goodwin is a seventh-grader in Wichita, Kans. He listens to his first Count Basie record, The Queen Bee. Even though he has never heard Big Band jazz before, it hits him like something he has always known. He thinks, "That's it. That's going to be my life." And for the next three decades or so, it is--sort of. After studying music in college, he becomes a busy pianist, saxophonist and arranger at Disney theme parks and Hollywood studios, with a five-year interlude as musical director for Johnny Mathis. He wins three Emmys for scoring TV cartoons and starts getting assignments for mainstream movies like Con Air and Armageddon.
Then comes a second moment of truth. The music he is turning out so successfully often strays too far from The Queen Bee. "I thought I'd better produce something that I could hold in my hand and say, 'Look! This is what I'm about.'"
The result is the Big Phat Band, the powerhouse 18-piece ensemble that Goodwin formed in 2000. Made up of topflight studio musicians, it plays Goodwin's complex, bristling arrangements with hair-raising virtuosity. "There are no passengers in this band," says lead trumpeter Wayne Bergeron. "Everybody can drive."
Although its jumping-off point is the legendary Big Bands of a half-century ago--Basie, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton--the Phat Band mixes in rock, R&B and Latin to achieve what Goodwin, 51, calls "a contemporary energy and focus and edge." Amazingly, it works for high school and college kids who, if they have ever heard of the swing era, probably think it occurred between the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic. Half of the Phat Band's live appearances are at schools and colleges. The group's range and appeal to all ages are on full display on its latest CD, The Phat Pack (Immergent). The rapidly twisting unison and ensemble lines of Cut 'N Run are like a breakneck drive on a winding road--dangerous and exhilarating. On the title track, misterioso woodwind passages alternate with a soulful, pounding minor blues. The streak of humor in Goodwin's writing comes to the fore in wry nods to his TV and film composing, including the finger-snapping Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, complete with a scream and a splat.
Goodwin continues to pursue studio projects. He won a Grammy for an arrangement in last year's The Incredibles, and this year he has orchestrated and conducted the scores for Snakes on a Plane and The Guardian. But the Phat Band has become a cause for him, if not quite a career. After all, with his exuberant, missionary zeal, he is advancing a vital tradition. At a Phat Band concert a year ago at the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California, one appreciative listener was the venerated arranger-composer Johnny Mandel, 80, who wrote for the likes of Basie, Herman and Artie Shaw. "You," Mandel told Goodwin after the show, "are where Big Band writing is today."
Another moment of truth.