Saturday, April 10, 2010

StLJN Saturday Video Showcase:
Four from Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band

It's been a while since we've highlighted any big band clips for this weekly feature, and so today let's take a look at some videos of pianist, saxophonist and arranger/composer Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, who are coming to town to play next Saturday, April 17 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center as part of the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival.

Formed in 2000 and based in Los Angeles, the 17-piece Big Phat Band also headlined an evening at the Touhill for the GSLJF back in 2007. Reviewing the show then, I enjoyed their performance and was favorably impressed with their overall musicianship, energy and showmanship, but found the material a little slight and unmemorable.

Now, thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can check out four staples from the BPB's songbook and draw your own conclusions. First up is "Hunting Wabbits," inspired in part by the classic Carl Stalling soundtracks to Warner Brothers cartoons (and the Raymond Scott compositions frequently incorporated therein). It's probably my favorite piece of Goodwin's, and from what I can tell, pops up at the majority of BPB shows.

Down below are clips of "Count Bubba's Revenge," an uptempo blues, and the Latin-flavored "El Macho Muchacho," which, though quite well-executed, strike me as emblematic of the band's somewhat awkward resemblance to the Doc Severinsen-era Tonight Show band and certain other 1970s big bands. Both pieces are entertaining enough, and offer blowing space for some talented soloists, but feel a bit generic.

And speaking of the 1970s, batting cleanup today is a clip of the Big Phat Band's version of "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)," which sold a bajillion records for one-hit wonders Wild Cherry back then, and to this day remains on the playlist for cover bands and wedding DJs throughout the land. As a showcase for the alto sax soloist - here it's Eric Marienthal - it's an opportunity to whip up a little David Sanborn/Maceo Parker pastiche, which Marienthal does quite handily.

As a concept/arrangement, it recalls the sort of thing Maynard Ferguson did back in the 1970s, in the process achieving the same sort of adoration among students and aspiring big-band musicians that Goodwin seems to enjoy today. However, there's a big difference: Ferguson was tackling pop tunes of the time, not reaching back more than 30 years for his source material.

While "Play That Funky Music" is fun in an empty-calories sort of way, there's not much underlying musical substance there. If they're going to play big band versions of goofy pop songs, it'd be more interesting to hear Goodwin and the Big Phat Band do something with more contemporary material. If The Bad Plus can re-do Nirvana and Vijay Iyer can remake M.I.A., why couldn't Gordon Goodwin re-imagine the music of, say, Lady Gaga or Kanye West?

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