Guest musicians include Take 6, Gerald Albright, Dave Koz and Marcus Miller
For ten years, saxophonist/pianist and GRAMMY-winning composer/arranger Gordon Goodwin has been driving a train that won’t stop. He first assembled his Big Phat Band in 2000 – an ironic starting point for an 18-piece big band, given that the fleeting neo-swing craze of the late 1990s was just winding down. But Goodwin and his crew have always been the real deal, and have always been in it for the long haul. In the decade since their ambitious beginnings, the Big Phat Band has burned up stages and studios with an eclectic, intelligent and high-energy brand of music that marries the best elements of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Barry and other big-band and orchestral jazz giants of the past 70 years.
The Big Phat Band’s journey takes a new turn with the April 12, 2011, release of That’s How We Roll, the group’s sixth recording overall and their first on Telarc International, a division of Concord Music Group.
“There’s a significant segment of the population – and some are just high school kids – who inherited an appreciation for this music from their parents or their grandparents,” says Goodwin. “They don’t necessarily consider themselves jazz fans, but they find this music to be accessible without being highbrow or elitist. The inspiration behind this record is very simple, and very much in line with that of our previous records. We make music that sounds good to us, and it does seem to resonate with a lot of people.”
That’s How We Roll is a ten-song set of all original material, save for an intriguing rendition of Gershwin’s classic “Rhapsody in Blue.” The remaining nine tracks were written by Goodwin, including the driving and syncopated “Never Enough,” which he co-authored with his wife, Lisa Goodwin. Along the way, the Big Phat Band gets some assistance from a handful of stellar artists: a cappella supergroup Take 6, saxophonists Gerald Albright and Dave Koz, and bassist Marcus Miller.
Goodwin admits that weaving high-caliber artists like these into the context of an 18-piece band can be a challenge. “In a case like this, you really want it to sound like an organic meeting of band and guest soloist,” he says. “It takes a great engineer like Tommy Vicari to fit everything into the sonic picture in a way that the listener can hear every part. He did an outstanding job in that regard.”
The album opens with the sly and ultra-tight title track that makes room for each of the horn sections to stretch out and establish their respective territory. In addition, guitarist Andrew Synowiec and bassist Rick Shaw also lay down some understated but solid grooves.
Equal parts simmering and funky, “Rippin’ and Runnin’” features the saxophone threesome of Albright, Koz and Eric Marienthal, the latter a regular member of the Big Phat Band roster. “Koz wouldn’t call himself a jazz player in the sense that some of us might think of jazz, but he’s such a great musician,” says Goodwin. “This track was a little experiment that we tried, and it came out awesome. You hear three different artists all playing alto saxophone, but each in a really unique way.”
Midway through the set, “Everlasting” sets up an interlude of melodic balladry that allows for a half-time breather of sorts. The quiet interplay between guitar and horns on this track may represent a brief scaling back of the energy level, but it demonstrates the same caliber of musicianship found elsewhere in the recording.
“Never Enough” showcases the vocal work of Take 6, with a definitive underscoring by Marcus Miller on bass. “I think there’s no a cappella group around right now that’s as good as Take 6,” says Goodwin. “As for Marcus, that guy’s groove is just as solid as it gets. His part on that track has a lot of complexity to it, but he didn’t hesitate about it for an instant. When you get a bass player like him on a track, it really elevates things.”
The band closes by pumping up Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with an elastic tempo, an aggressive arrangement and generous spaces for ambitious solo flourishes. The resulting track preserves the integrity of the original material yet modernizes it for a contemporary audience.
It’s this kind of balance of the traditional with the progressive that underscores the Big Phat Band’s philosophy overall. “The title of the album is a statement about our desire and commitment to ensemble music that encompasses a wide range of styles,” says Goodwin. “That’s How We Roll is our way of saying, ‘This is the music that we believe in, and we’re going to play it and record it in a way that reflects that belief and the commitment.”