Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Goodwin, Gordon

Pianist/Saxophonist/Composer Gordon Goodwin is best known as being the leader of the Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band. Goodwin’s writing typically features ferociously quick tempos, rapid melodic passages, and different style incorporations on top of the traditional big band sound. Goodwin’s music has been praised for its high levels of style exploration and technical virtuosity.

The Big Phat Band has become one of the most influential and popular big bands in jazz music. His band is comprised of some of the best musicians in Los Angeles and the extent of the band’s influence has been particularly strong amongst high school and college big bands, which frequently play Goodwin songs. Goodwin is also celebrated in the Hollywood community for his film scores and arrangements, which have been performed for numerous commercial films as well as performed by Christina Aguilera, Quincy Jones, and Ray Charles.

Gordon Goodwin was born in 1954 in Wichita, Kansas. He grew up in Southern California and began taking piano lessons as a young child. In the first grade, he studied piano with Janet Hodges who recognized Goodwin’s gift for melody and encouraged him to write. He has claimed that he composed his first big band chart “Hang Loose” while he was in the seventh grade.

Goodwin attended Bonita High School in La Verne, California where he was practically handed the conducting job for the high school band. He praised his high school music director Robin Snyder in an interview in which Goodwin said, “He pretty much handed over the high school band to me when I was a freshman. He said I could write for and help direct the band. He pretty much let me do what I wanted, so I had a voice.” After high school, Goodwin enrolled at California State Northridge where he studied with Joel Leach.

Following his graduation from college, Goodwin worked the Louie Bellson big band. Goodwin shares his thoughts on the experience, “It was exciting. I was scared to death and I got to write charts for Louie, and I got a chance to sit in the sax section next to people like Don Menza, Pete Christleib and Blue Mitchell.” Goodwin composed the music for the 1978 cult film Attack of the Killer Tomatoes Goodwin and he also played saxophone on poet Jill Scott Heron’s album 1980, which also featured Harvey Mason on drums. Goodwin released his first solo album in 1983 entitled Close to the Edge for the Nova label. Goodwin worked with legendary singer Johnny Mathis through the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, having toured extensively with him.

For the majority of the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Goodwin stayed behind the scenes working on various commercial ventures in Hollywood. His arrangements and orchestrations can be heard in numerous films including Bad Boys II, Remember the Titans, Con Air, and Gone in Sixty Seconds. It was through his extended work in Hollywood that Goodwin came across many of the musicians that later formed the core of the Big Phat Band. The founding members of the Big Phat Band included Chick Corea saxophonist Eric Marienthal, Maynard Ferguson trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, and seasoned Los Angeles session trombonist Andy Martin.

The Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band has released five albums since 2002. On many of the albums the writing is very slick and commercial but still very appealing. The group’s first album Swingin’ for the Fences was released in 2002. The title track of the song features several sections of blistering sixteenth note runs, as the brass section has no problem handling Gordon’s technical music. The song “Sing, Sang, Sung” is a play on the Louis Prima song “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which was made famous by clarinetist Benny Goodman. On the Goodwin version, the band swings much harder than Goodman ever could have, with excellent feeling by the rhythm section and tasteful phrasing by the soloists.

In 2005, the band released the album XXL. It features more writing in the vein of the old big band but Gordon also steps out and experiments with other styles. On the rock inspired “The Jazz Police,” the song opens up with an electric guitar riff that sets up the rockabilly feel of the song. The brass and wind sections reach epic heights with dynamics on this tune; weaving back and forth between medium and loud, painting a perfect sonic backdrop for the solos. On 2006’s release The Phat Pack, Goodwin shows his skills writing for vocals on the track “Too Close for Comfort.” Goodwin is a master at composing call and response lines for the horn section as they trade lines with the vocalist. Also in 2006, Goodwin assembled his band to record the soundtrack to the animated movie Bah, Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas, a happy album that captures the big band sound with the addition of the Looney Tunes character voices.

On the band’s 2008 release Act Your Age, several special guests add nice flavor to the BPB mix. They include Chick Corea who appears on “Senor Mouse,” plays with extreme confidence and shows flashes of brilliance with warm harmonic variations and swinging eighth note solo lines over the band’s Latin fueled groove. Other songs of note include the Steely Dan sounding “Backrow Politics,” the calypso groove of “East Coast Envy,” and “Punta del Soul,” which features Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour. In 2009, Los Angeles session organist/composer David Siebels enlisted the Big Phat Band for Dave Siebels with Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band. Songs of note from the album include “Da Blues" and “The Coupe.

The impact of Gordon Goodwin’s work in jazz might have taken more than twenty years to come to the surface but his contributions to the modern big band are undeniable. His Big Phat Band has been nominated for numerous Grammy Awards and has graced the stage at the Playboy Jazz Festival. Goodwin works carries on the legacy of Stan Kenton and Count Basie with a contemporary twist, adding spice and seasoning to one of jazz music’s oldest formats. Today Goodwin lives in Los Angeles with his wife Lisa and their three children. He continues to write for the Hollywood and serves as the Head Music Arranger for Walt Disney Studios.


The Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band

Swingin' For The Fences (Silverline, 2002)

XXL (Silverline, 2005)

The Phat Pack (Silverline, 2006)

Bah, Humduck! a Looney Tunes Christmas (Silverline, 2006)

Act Your Age (Silverline, 2008)

Contributor: Jared Pauley