Gordon Goodwin is one of the leading minds in music today. He continues to pioneer a new era of big band music with his Big Phat Band, he composes for film and TV at Warner Bros and elsewhere, and he continues to educate the next generation of musicians around the world. Goodwin’s versatility is unmatched and his mastery of dynamics unparalleled. One listen of any of his work will get you hooked. Read on below for Part 2 of our interview with Gordon Goodwin, the bandleader!
With the Big Phat Band, individually all of these musicians are involved in other incredible projects and bands. How did you bring everyone together?
A lot of them are lifelong friends. I’ve known Wayne Bergeron, our lead trumpet player, since we were in high school together. We all came up in the business together. But more than that, they’re all studio musicians, so I would work with them on other projects. As I would get a project for Disney or something I’d call those guys and get them work. That doesn’t hurt, you know? If I’m asking them to do a free rehearsal and come play some big band charts, if I had just called them for a paid recording session, they don’t mind taking that phone call.
After that though, they definitely have to like the music. If they don’t like the music it’s going to be a short ride. Over the years there has been some adjustments in the personnel — not a lot of adjustments, but change is natural. I need to get people who don’t mind losing a dollar once in a while to be there, people who see that there is value in being a link in the chain. Our band in a way connects to Count Basie and Duke Ellington and those guys. I find that the people that stick are the ones who are willing to be members of a team and to put their ego down for a while. Especially when they’re playing in the ensemble, they need to be a member of the ensemble and bend to that will. You need to phrase the same way the lead player does and your vibrato needs to match his. Your cutoffs need to match his.
I’ve heard great bands where I hear five saxophonists playing with different concepts. They stand up to solo and they’re incredible, but in the ensemble they’re not a unit. I wouldn’t be naming any names, but what we look for are people who can solo when it’s time, but can also sit down and play as a member of the team.
When you first pitched the band to musicians, did you have a specific idea in mind or was it more of just bringing them in to play your charts?
We put the band together to record our first record. We had no intention of doing a live gig. I didn’t think that was something I could do. I didn’t want to just play some little club here in town. But then we took a gig right after the record came out. We ended up enjoying it so much and for me I came to the realization that this was why I started playing music. I wanted to get up on stage and have that interaction with an audience. You don’t get that in studios. When you’re in a studio working on a film it’s almost like a factory job. You play the first cue and record it, and then on to the next one. You don’t get feedback from the audience because they’re not going to hear it until it gets put in the film six months later or whatever.
So when we did that one gig, I started to consider that we should do some more gigs. So before I knew it, I had an agent and an assistant and probably five or six people working on the band’s schedule. It’s still revenue neutral though.
We put the band together in 1999. Our first record came out in 2000 and then in 2001 travelling on an airplane changed. It became a lot harder for us to do that. Then when the economy went down in 2007, gig offers started to dry up. Jazz festivals would say, “You know, for the cost of a big band we could get two quartets.” It’s funny; we probably work outside of the United States than we do inside of it. We go to Japan every year. This year we’re going back to Japan and we’re going to Australia and the UK and maybe to Ukraine as well. That’s one thing that is a little bit sobering. Japan is kicking our ass as far as supporting jazz goes. Do you know what it costs to see us at the Blue Note in Tokyo? It’s costs about 90 US dollars. We sell out every show.
Can you imagine that happening in this country? What’s the difference? What’s going on? I mean look, I’m not sure who I would pay $90 to see either.
I want to talk a little about your composing process. There are not so many big bands that are as dynamic as the Big Phat Band these days. How do you bring that out in your musicians?
Like I referred to earlier, we have a real commitment to ensemble playing. We take pride in it. I’m friends with Bob Mintzer and he moved from New York to LA. I interviewed him for a podcast that I do and I asked him to tell me about the differences between his New York band and his LA band. He goes, “Well, with the LA band when those guys play loud, they play loud. When they play short, they play really short. If it’s a short accent, it’s really short. Whereas with the New York guys, it’s definitely a looser thing.” He wasn’t judging it as bad or good, just that there is a precision mindset out here in LA. If you write a crescendo for the band, everybody commits to it. It’s something that you really feel.
As a matter of fact, I sometimes find myself trying to get the guys to split the difference a little bit. I don’t want to dissipate the groove by having things be too tight. More than that, I just want everything we do to be something we do on purpose. It’s not that we played something and it was a happy accident. We owe the audience that. We owe them our absolute best effort. When I go see a jazz group or a big band and they go up on the stage and go, “Okay guys lets do Number 18,” and the guys are shuffling through papers and can’t find stuff, the audience is waiting. I think that’s disrespectful, especially because this audience has paid good money to come see you. I don’t think it’s asking too much to have some sort of a presentation ready.
I’m deviating from the question, but going back to it, it’s that we’re very deliberate in terms of our intention. That carries over to when we play a piece of music. Everybody takes all of the notations seriously. These guys in the band are excellent sight-readers. They never make a mistake. I could put a chart on the stand and have them sight-read it and all of the notes would be right. The nuances might not be right, so that’s something that we would rehearse and dial into. Wrong notes or wrong rhythms though are rarely a problem for these guys. They’re used to going into the recording studio and just sight-reading anything. It’s really a fortunate thing for a composer to have.
You recently released an arrangement of “On Green Dolphin Street” based on a rarely heard Oscar Peterson recording. How did you come across it?
This is a fascinating story. It came from a company called Zenph Sound Innovations. These guys are a technology company and I get in over my head when I try to describe what they do, but it’s a software they’ve developed that enables them to take old audio signals and clean them up. In the case of Oscar, they found an old videotape of a TV series Oscar did when he was in Canada. He was the host and he played with his trio and interviewed other musicians. He had Dizzy on there and I think he had Tommy Flanagan and people like that. It ran for one season with maybe 6 or 9 episodes and that was it. I had never even heard of it, but these guys at Zenph got a copy of some of the episodes and sent them to me with the idea that they could resurrect these performances of Oscar and we would be able to use him as a guest artist in the Big Phat Band.
I found on one of the episodes he played “On Green Dolphin Street” with the trio of Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. It was burning! I thought it would be a unique thing to do because it was a solo that almost no one had ever heard. We ended up taking Oscar’s solo and the guys at Zenph were able to separate the piano from the bass and drums. They got the raw data of Oscar Peterson. Then they encoded it to be replayed by one of those Yamaha Disklavier pianos. This time though, the piano was brand new and perfectly in tune and they created a brand new recording out of that. I took that recording and wrote an arrangement around Oscar. We did the same thing with Art Tatum on our tune “Yesterdays.” It was really fascinating to do.
So we did this with Oscar, recorded it, and we were in the process of mastering when we got the phone call from Oscar’s lawyers telling us that they had changed their minds about letting us use it.
It was not a good phone call. We tried to talk to them about our intentions and what we were going to do and we weren’t able to persuade them. So I have this arrangement of “On Green Dolphin Street” kind of based on an Oscar Peterson solo and nowhere to go with it. I finally decided that I would go in the studio and play his solo. Some people would call me nerve-y for even doing that. So I’m in there trying to play his solo and there are phrases he plays with one hand that I need two, you know? So what I ended up doing was kind of a hybrid of what Oscar played and then some of my own stuff. It ended up being a tribute to Oscar.
Some purists would have a problem with it, but I think it’s fascinating to create new ways of expressing the artistic intent. I don’t know if I’m going to play that solo anytime soon live, but it was fun [laughs]. My hope is that people will hear this track and go buy an Oscar Peterson record.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)