“Playing the Hollywood Bowl is just iconic. We’ve played there four times now, and here’s what I do: I walk out, and I’m just looking out at the amphitheater with thousands of people, and I give myself just a second to stop, look, and take it all in. And I think to myself, ‘How did I get here man?’ I used to go to concerts there when I was a kid, and now I’m playing here. So I give myself five seconds to soak it in, then I go, ‘Alright, get your ass up there and do the show.”
This is acclaimed Los Angeles film and television composer and leader of The Big Phat Band Gordon Goodwin discussing pinnacle moments throughout his illustrious career.
Nominated for *twenty-two* Grammys and bringing four home along with three Emmy wins to boot, Goodwin has long established himself as one of the premier music score composers in Hollywood. Credits include The Incredibles, The Lion King, National Treasure, Snakes on a Plane, Con Air, Star Trek: Nemesis, Ratatouille and numerous others.
Aside from his celebrated work in film and television, Goodwin is also the leader of his own 18-piece band, The Big Phat Band, and earlier this month, they released their 5-track EP, The Reset.
From the get go, the titular track wastes no time immersing the listener on an intense sonic voyage, full of thrilling layers and arrangements with unique tempo changes abound. Around the 1:20 mark, and through much of the song, visions of Primus emerge. Yes, that Primus. With killer bass slaps akin to that of Les Claypool and heavy drums, the song soon becomes well-furnished with a smattering of horns and electric guitar. Oddly enough this “jazz” number has a fun rock tinge to it.
The six minute and forty-three-second track that is “The Reset,” feels like you just watched a short movie. So much happens, so much changes, and there’s never a dull moment. And this is just the maiden voyage for the rest of the brief but powerful album.
It soon becomes abundantly clear that Goodwin is a top tier professional who knows what the hell he’s doing. Each song, which all sit between four and shy of seven minutes, intertwine in such a way creating a sonic tapestry full of vibrance and soul. To anybody who even has a basic understanding of making music, it’s dumbfounding and spellbinding to listen to.
Goodwin told us the idea behind The Reset, and like most music that came out this year, it was in response to the pandemic.
“All of a sudden I was like, ‘Well what do I want to do? What kind of music do I want to write without any economic considerations?’ So that was just a change for me. And I remember talking to Chick Corea about that issue, because he used to tell me that he would devote three months a year just composing. He wouldn’t take any gigs, he would just write. And I thought, ‘What a luxury!”
He went on to say, “We started to see how the dominoes were falling in so many directions in regards to what’s important to us as musicians and as people. Priorities began to shift a bit. So I think The Reset was more a comment on when we go through challenging times, it’s difficult and it sucks in a lot of ways, but there’s lessons to be learned and growth to be had. And sometimes we’re forced into that change.”
With inspirations ranging from The Beatles, to Count Basie, to Quincy Jones, Goodwin takes elements from all across the board, puts them in a blender, and hits puree. The result is a fascinating array of sounds and textures.
“My idea with The Big Phat Band was can we create some music that not only honors the tradition of jazz, but also honors the contemporary recording and production techniques so it sounds like a new record. So something that sounds like a pop record in that regard, but still has a lot of the values and spontaneity of a jazz record,” he said.
Goodwin made an interesting point when talking about Jones and his transition from working with old school legends like Count Basie and Frank Sinatra, to Michael Jackson and other pop legends of the 80s. He mentioned the criticisms from both sides of the line he faced when it came to his work within the jazz and pop worlds.
“People would tell him, ‘Well that’s too jazzy for a pop record’, or, ‘That’s too superficial and poppy for a jazz record.’ So if you’re not a member of one tribe or another, sometimes people have a hard time knowing what to do with you.”
As a music lover, it’s always interesting to ponder when an artist knows (or thinks they know) when a song is finished, especially when it comes to deeply intricate instrumental arrangements like Goodwin’s music. I asked him when he knows a song of his is finished, and if he finds himself perpetually wanting to tweak things or re-record etc.
“That’s always the temptation. Because you can always make it better. You almost never get to a point where you’re like ‘Okay, it’s done, it’s perfect,’ or ‘Now I know how to write this music.” You never get there, but because I work on films where I have really tight deadlines and I have no choice but to turn it in, I think I have a little more discipline as to having a sense of, ‘Alright this is my first effort at it, and it’s probably my most honest effort, and I’m going to go with it.’ Even if it’s not perfect.”
When asked about how he goes about arranging an album like this, he said, “I didn’t have any preconceptions about melody or form, I just wanted to kind of reassociate and float my way compositionally speaking.”
While 4/5ths of the EP are deeply involved instrumentals, the third track, “Through the Fire,” a Chaka Khan cover, features strong female vocalist, Vangie Gunn.
“We did a gig, and it was for Jimmy Kimmel. It was right after the Oscars, and Jimmy had a big party afterwards. Well we played the party, and I said, ‘This isn’t a jazz audience. I think I need a couple of singers and someone to front the band.’ And Vangie got up there and nailed it.”
He went on to say, “Both of us really loved that song, and we thought we could do our own take on it. She sings a line in the middle of the song with the instrumentalist – a really convoluted, wide-ranging difficult line to sing – and it just really goes to show her talent. She and I love the song.”
He then tipped me off just how close he really is with Gunn. “The other thing you should know is we got married on July 31st, so the relationship goes professional and deeply personal.”
In regards to his various Grammys and Emmys he’s taken home and which if any meant the most to him, he said, “So our fourth Grammy was for a record we did called Life in the Bubble, which was just us. From the ground up, just our band doing it, without any hopping on the back of George Gershwin or Pixar, and that meant so much to us. Not that I didn’t appreciate the other ones- I value and treasure them. Life in the Bubble was definitely unique and unforgettable.”
When discussing being an active part of the music-making as both a piano player and sax player versus being a composer, Goodwin said, “There’s something about getting in the trenches with the guys and jamming. It’s a different thing. You get into a groove and you’re all locked in and feelin’ it, and there’s nothing like it. I didn’t want to be one of those guys standing up in front of a band waving my arms and not actively contributing to the music. So I made a commitment to make sure my sax and piano playing were still at a good level so I could sit with these amazing musicians and belong. While my voice as a composer is probably stronger, I’m selfish enough to want to be in the swimming pool with everybody when we’re doing that, if that makes sense.”
He finished with some words of wisdom for aspiring musicians and composers: “Along the way, we had to learn that it was all about building a brand. And the reason I was able to do what I do, is because later in life, I was about 40-years-old before I figured out that I had to be who I was, and not worry about what people thought. And once I got there, I could be honest in what I believed in, music and otherwise. It all opened up for me.”
The Reset can be found on all major streaming platforms, and the Big Phat Band will be playing these select shows to close out the year:
Oct 29: West Coast Big Band Showcase (Little Phat Band) – The Westin LAX
Oct 30: Sammy Nestico Tribute w/ Gordon conducting the LA Jazz Orchestra – The Westin LAX
Nov 6: Yoshi’s, Oakland, CA (7:30 & 9:30) [Big Phat Band]
Dec 5: Vibrato Grill, Los Angeles, CA (Big Phat Band)
Dec 30, 31: Los Angeles, CA @ Catalina Jazz Club (Big Phat Band)
Photo by Rex Bullington