Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band are that rarest of jazz beasts, the truly thundering, full-sized big band. When they took the stage to kick off last weekend’s second annual Solvang Jazz Festival, the crowd immediately responded with bursts of applause and echoes and reverberations that seemed to reach back to the heyday of jazz from the building itself, which has a great, bright sound. Goodwin scores film and television for a living, and he has the charm and sophistication of a true Hollywood insider. The players in his Big Phat Band are plucked from among the top session artists in Los Angeles, and they bring great joy to this high-gloss, full-bore project. The band play fluidly in a variety of styles and make even the most familiar of standards sound fresh. This was particularly true on two genuine warhorses, “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Body and Soul,” for which the guest soloist was James Moody. Moody has one of the zaniest and most unpredictable senses of humor in all of music, and he cracked a few quick jokes (including one about the politicians who were debating down in Mississippi at that very moment) before leaping into the music, which was superb.
Moody was followed onto the bandstand by Barbara Morrison, another national treasure who can light up a room. She managed to do what the band had not by getting lots of people up and dancing. As couples whirled and glided across the wooden floors in the high-vaulted chamber, it was easy to imagine what a wild and swinging place the West Coast of the 1940s must have been.
To round out this fascinating excursion into big band sounds old and new, Goodwin gave us an original composition called “Back Row Politics” that featured his fabulous crew of trumpeters. These guys tore the roof off the place in true cutting-session fashion, trading fours like nobody’s business and generally having a great time with it. Had the young Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady (the heroes of On the Road and huge fans of West Coast big band jazz) somehow been there, there surely would have been a few hoarse cries of “Go, man, go!”