Gordon Goodwin’s Total Devotion


Composer, multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Gordon Goodwin knows that accolades can’t make his music better or worse.

(Photo: Joe Meyer)

Gordon Goodwin gracefully balances the pros and cons of life in Southern California. He recently moved into a gated community in Westlake Village, about 30 miles from Hollywood (or two hours in rush-hour traffic).

It’s November, and by 10 a.m. the temperature is above 90 degrees. His house is big but not especially lavish, with a modest sedan and a minivan—both made by Honda—parked safely out of the blistering sun, visible through the open garage. At one point, the NFL player who lived next door owned a few large canines that created a noise issue for Goodwin’s weekly jazz radio show, Phat Tracks on KJAZZ-FM, an hourlong program recorded in a studio in the pianist’s converted basement. Goodwin is settling into the neighborhood, having moved from nearby—hopefully farther from the threat of wildfires, which had caused him considerably more disruption than those barking dogs.

“I used to live about a mile away ... we only got evacuated three times,” he said, in all seriousness. Goodwin was on tour in Paris when it last happened. His son had to rush over to save some instruments and hard drives. “Leave the clarinet, let that burn,” he quipped, reenacting his instructions to his son. “He drove through the 101 freeway, and there were flames on either side.”

Goodwin lamented the hot and windy months “where you wonder, ‘Is today the day when I lose my house?’” Still, he’s not moving away from Los Angeles any time soon. “It’s so crowded, it’s so expensive, and now, it’s kind of dangerous,” he admitted. “But for me, having the proximity to the great talent pool, it’s pretty important.”

Goodwin has dipped his toes into that pool virtually his whole life. As a boy growing up in Southern California, he idolized Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, starting his own version of it in middle school, before being turned on to Count Basie. Many of his idols and mentors were here, from Sammy Nestico to Stan Kenton (he was a student at Kenton’s summer jazz camp), from Buddy Rich and Bob Florence to Steven Spielberg, who hired him weekly to score music for the children’s animated TV show The Animaniacs. One of his first high-profile jazz gigs was playing second alto for Louie Bellson at Disneyland’s historic Carnation Plaza Gardens, where all the best bands of the day used to do weeklong runs for a summer jazz series.

Goodwin came of age as a professional musician alongside others who ended up carrying the torch passed to them from the elite Hollywood studio recording community, some of whom now form the core of his signature ensemble, The Big Phat Band. Now in its 20th year, the BPB has released its ninth album, The Gordian Knot, named after the Turkish phrase that Goodwin defines as “an intractable problem ... kind of like running a big band.” The new recording continues the band’s longstanding penchant for racing though a dizzying array of musical styles, handling all the twists and turns with an improbable degree of execution and precision.

Improbable, but not impossible. Gordon ruefully notes that some people think, incorrectly, that their music has been “fixed” in Pro Tools. Those who hear the band live know there’s not much to fix. That the band sounds too good to be true is a testament to the players, who to a person all have survived and thrived in the competitive L.A. studio session scene for one reason only: They have proven time and again that they are the most accomplished sight-readers, performers and improvisers that money can buy.

“I think that the band represents some of the very best that we have to offer in Southern California,” said Wayne Bergeron, speaking by phone. Bergeron is Exhibit A of those representatives. He is the predominant, first-call lead trumpeter for big-budget film or TV scoring sessions and is inarguably the defining voice of the Big Phat Band. He is surrounded by an exemplary cast that includes saxophonists Eric Marienthal and Sal Lozano, trombonists Andy Martin and Francisco Torres, guitarist Andrew Synowiec, bassist Kevin Axt, drummer Ray Brinker and percussionist Joey DeLeon. In addition to arranging and composing material for the new album, Goodwin plays piano throughout, along with saxophone in certain spots.

The cohesion is reinforced by a shared commitment to performing together as a band. “We’re as close as you can get to being a road band,” said Bergeron, recalling his time touring with Maynard Ferguson. “When you play the same music every night ... things evolve, and great things happen to the music.”

Goodwin’s band has something approaching that mentality. Currently, they average about 50 shows a year around the world, remarkable considering how busy these studio professionals are.

The leader acknowledges the sacrifices his players make for the sake of his band. He tries to pay them as best he can, but concedes, “It’s nothing compared to what they make playing commercial music. I’m competing ... with a week at the Hollywood Bowl. My one gig [competes] with a movie session that not only pays them thousands of dollars for the day, but the potential of thousands, tens of thousands of dollars in royalties. I’m going to ask him to give that up? Yet, sometimes he does. Because he believes in the mission statement of the band, and [in] being a link in the chain—from Basie and Thad and Mel, Maynard and Buddy Rich—to what we’re doing.”

“We don’t play in that band for the money, God knows,” said bassist Axt. The Burbank native earns a comfortable living playing for movie soundtracks like La La Land, Crazy Rich Asians and Ford vs. Ferrari. Despite that, he embraces the tradeoff: “We’re all really dedicated to being a part of his music, and we really love playing with each other as well.”

“Gordon’s music is just incredibly special,” said saxophonist Marienthal, speaking by phone from his California home, fresh off a European tour. “It’s some of the most brilliantly written music, and some of the most fun to play.” Marienthal, who was in high school when he first met Goodwin, was a guest soloist on the Phat Band’s debut recording, and has played regularly with the group since its first live gig. To him, it’s on par with the challenge and satisfaction he gets playing with Chick Corea, albeit a much different style of music. “It is like nothing else I do in my career,” he said.

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