Gordon Goodwin

Many of our favorite songs come from movies and screen works making magical sounds that really touches our souls. One of those extraordinary creative composers is Gordon Goodwin who has worked on several pieces of music that been nominated for and won both Emmy awards and Grammy awards. Music lovers can hear his cinematic compositions in films like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Incredibles, National Treasure, Enemy of the State, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, as well as Bah, HumDuck A Looney Tunes Christmas, which also showcased his band the Big Phat Band’s signature sound.

Goodwin has utilized his amazing keyboard and woodwind playing abilities to play, compose and arrange music with world-renowned artists such as Johnny Mathis, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Christina Aguilera, John Williams, David Foster and Toni Braxton to name a few. He and his Big Phat Band first made their impressive mark in the music industry in ‘2000 with their debut LP Swingin’ For The Fences (released in 2001), and this past year they released their latest album The Gordian Knot.

Catching up with this incredible musician, composer, conductor, Goodwin revealed some details about the new Big Phat Band record, their shows, how he composes his variety of music and what fans can look forward to.

SFL Music: You have a new album The Gordian Knot. That’s exciting! Is there a theme? What inspired it?
Gordon Goodwin: Well, you know the phrase ‘the gordian knot’? Some sort of impractical problem that is so tangled up that it’s hard to unravel, and that is a pretty good analogy for running a big band in today’s day and age. The big band genre has, except for maybe in the forties when it was the you know, pop music of America. It’s always been a bit if an uphill climb in terms of economics and logistics and trying to get attention that it deserves right? So, it’s got a lot of built-in challenges. Not just the ones I mentioned, economically. Like logistically, trying to move twenty people around to do a tour is pretty hard to do especially with this genre, but on top of that, I’ve kind of exacerbated the problem because the people in the Big Phat Band are all really in demand here in L.A. and they do a lot of recording sessions and movies. All kinds of media-based music. So, they make better money doing that, way better money doing that than they do to go out and play jazz on the road. Actually, I’m grateful of the fact that many of them choose to be there anyway. Even if they’re losing money. Now sometimes they have to kind of balance that decision and not lose too much money in order to come out and play our music, but most of them take a hit once in a while just to be a part of this family and to be a link in the chain of the great big bands since the forties. So, it was a little bit of a nod to that issue, but our records are essentially kind of a pastiche of a lot of influences. So even though we like Count Basie and we play music in that style. That might be you know, twelve percent of what we do. Then there might be twelve percent that’s rock and roll, and then another twelve percent that’s R&B. Another twelve percent that’s kind of classical, filmsic kind of stuff. On The Gordian Knot we even have a country-western hoedown. So, I really believe in diversity when it comes to styles. That we can break down musical, stylistic boundaries, and I’m lucky that the guys in this band have training and experience in all those genres, so if they have to play you know, classically or like a (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart kind of thing, they can do that. If they have to play down and dirty blues, they can do that, and that’s a great gift for a composer to have that kind of versatility to work with.

SFL Music: You have spoken about playing live and how that was really inspirational to you. Are you guys going to do any touring?
Goodwin: Well, we’ve actually started to book some gigs since the whole COVID shut down when everything got wiped off the calendar. So, we did our first one in August. Now that was back when we thought that things were gonna open up and it turned out sadly not to quite be the case, but we’ve done here in L.A., we did about six gigs. We have our Christmas show this Sunday at a club called Vibrato (Grill Jazz), which is owned by Herb Alpert. We always play. It’s a beautiful, elegant club. We like playing there, and then we’re playing on December 3rd which is my birthday, and the next night which is New Year’s Eve at a club in Hollywood, Catalina Jazz Club. So, we’re starting to kind of get up and do it, and of course we got to do a lot of precautions. We all have to get negative tests 72 hours before the gig and pretty much everybody’s vaccinated and you know, we wear our masks when we’re not onstage. All that stuff which for us it’s a small price to pay to be able to play music together and to feel that interchange between the audience, and that’s kind of what I was talking about. Playing music in your studio by yourself or in your bedroom is one thing and its satisfying to a degree, but really the ultimate expression of this is when you play to someone else, and then you reach them and they send you back their vibes and it forms what you do. So, that interchange is really something that I almost lost track of because I started to do a lot of studio work when I was about thirty years old. So, from age thirty to about, I’m gonna say forty, I didn’t hardly do any live gigs. I was in the studio the whole time and that can be a little antiseptic. There’s no audience. You just have the director of the project or the film and if he likes it, then you say ok, and you move onto the next piece of music. So, it was around my fortieth birthday that I started to examine what I was doing and asked myself, is this what I’m supposed to do? Because I was working at Warner Bros. and at Disney and when you’re working for those studios, I wrote music the way they wanted me to write it. Here’s what they needed and my job was to give them that. Didn’t matter what I liked or thought was important. It mattered what they liked. And that’s fine you know, and it pays well and it’s a good way to make a living, but at some point, I started to realize that I think maybe I should plant my flag and make a declaration of what I like. What I think is important. That’s when we started the band. That was in 1999 and here it is twenty-one years later there abouts and I’m talking to you. So, its brought balance in my life. I’ll tell you that for sure. When you get to the point in your life when you can say, here’s what I believe. Here’s who I am, and if you like me that’s great and if you don’t, then that’s also fine. You get to that point, it’s kind of liberating and the Big Phat Band has helped me to reach that in my own life.

SFL Music: What can fans look forward to with the live show?
Goodwin: Well, this particular one is our Christmas show which we only get to do once a year usually, so we’re not doing anything from The Gordian Knot. We have a new EP that came out a month ago called The Reset. We’re not doing anything from that. This is just all of our Christmas material. We did have our Christmas record that came out called A Big Phat Christmas Wrap This! (released in 2015), So, we’ll be doing that stuff, but once we get to our New Year’s gig, when you’ve been playing for twenty years and you’ve got eight records out, there’s a lot of material to choose from. So, you gotta do some old favorites that we kind of need to do, but definitely emphasize the new stuff. And here’s the other thing I would say about your question is that you know, we have eighteen people on the stage, 19 when you include Vangie (Gunn-Goodwin) our singer. We don’t have a lot of room to do a lot of moving around especially when we’re playing at a club, so it’s not like we have a lot of choreographed shtick. However, what we do have is eighteen guys that are really grateful to be there and we’re all really good friends and we have a blast, and I remember seeing Tower of Power when I was in college and I go, look at those guys. They’re having such a good time, and it was so infectious you know, when the musicians are up there just having a ball and it can bring the audience along, and that’s kind of what we do as well. So, our show is really entertaining and a lot of fun. Even when we’re serious, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re serious about doing the best job we can, but we don’t take ourselves that seriously. If that makes sense.

SFL Music: Yes. Definitely. Looks like a great time. You have racked up a lot of nominations. A lot of awards. You’re first album was the first commercial DVD/Audio?
Goodwin: Yeah, it was. Of course, you won’t be able to play that album anymore since the technology of the format that it was on.

SFL Music: True. How did that come about?
Goodwin: Well, at the time I didn’t even know how to get a record deal. I knew how to write the music. I knew how to record it, but I didn’t know how to get an agent or get a record deal, and so I ended up calling a friend of mine Johnny Mathis who I used to conduct for him, right? And I stayed friends with him over the years and I said, I wonder if you could know anybody that can help us. I have these five songs and I’m trying to see if I can get a record deal. So, he sent them to a guy named Phil Ramone and Phil Ramone who passed on, but he was a pretty illustrious producer. Produced people like Billy Joel, Whitney Houston. People like that, and he also was a jazz lover, and so he sent us to some other people and it ended up in the hands of a company called 5.1 Entertainment and their thing was remixing concerts and movies in 5.1 surround sound. And they heard the Big band, and they heard the kind of the depth of the music and they thought, this is perfect for our surround sound thing. So, for them they thought it would be a good product to sell their services as mixing. Like they would remix Sting concerts and things like that for release on, it wasn’t DVD. It was DVD audio and then next came was DVD video. So anyway, they signed us. It was the first deal we had and it was lucky for us that they had a need in terms of that we seemed to be a good tool, and at the end of the day, we were the last artists on their record. They had a lot more famous artists than us at the time, but then we were their bestselling artist before we were done. So, as far as the format thing goes, The Gordian Knot. We released that on CD, on vinyl, on flash drive and on Blu-ray. So, there’s so many different ways that people consume music and of course in addition to Spotify and Apple Music and YouTube and all that stuff. It’s the wild west out there as far as marketing music, and you’ve got people like my mom. I mean, actually, she’s pretty good at streaming. We’ve kind of taught her how to stream her music and she’s got Alexa in her apartment and stuff, but a lot of older people they want a CD. Younger people, they don’t want to deal with that. They want a streaming link and they want to be able to hear it whenever they want without having to open a thing and stick a CD. Never mind vinyl where they have to put it on a turntable (he laughed) and take the stylist and drop it down. So, it’s really a fascinating time for sure.

SFL Music: So, what drew you to music in the first place? When you were young you were into jazz, pop, rock, funk, but what made you decide to be a musician?
Goodwin: A couple of things. So first was, I don’t really have much of a memory of this, but my mom tells me that I was mesmerized by The Mickey Mouse Club show. I would sit in front of it and I’d wave my arms like I was conducting the music, and so the fact that I’ve had a long relationship with Walt Disney Company you know, as a professional is interesting given that that’s the first music I can remember. Kind of responded to, and then going to see movies like The Jungle Book in the theater as a little kid and hearing the jazz in that movie with Louis Prima. He played a character King Louie and I remember these Andy scats singing monkeys you know, aca dooba aba dooba. What is that? That was maybe in fourth grade when I heard that, and then I discovered Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass which is also interesting that now I know the guy and I play in his club, and he was a hero to me. I put together a little Tijuana brass band when I was a kid. I was in fifth grade. I had this little band. We played Herb Alpert stuff and I wrote music in that style around that time, and then I heard Count Basie when I was thirteen years old, and that experience was one of those epiphanies where I realized this is what I have to do. I didn’t know what it was I was gonna do. Play it? Compose it? I didn’t know what that meant, but it changed my life, and the man whose music I heard was a guy named Sammy Nestico and he just passed away in January of last year. He was an arranger most notably for Count Basie, but also for Frank Sinatra and all kinds of people like that. Big time, but behind the scenes guy, but really influential. He and I became friends over the years, and we just had a memorial for him. We really couldn’t do much ‘cause he passed away during COVID, but we had a memorial concert and his wife was there and his family and we were able to pay homage to this man. So anyway, there are two songs on our EP, The Reset. One of them is called “My Man Sam” which I wrote a tribute to Sammy, and the other’s called “Cell Talk” which is Sammy’s very last chart he wrote when he was 93 years old. And you hear this music. The dudes 93 and he still has that creative you know, spark. He’s still trying to find new stuff and trying to you know, figure out well, what’s another way I could look at this and look at my musical expression? So, Sammy, back when I was thirteen, led me into the big band world and even though I studied Mozart and (Ludwig van) Beethoven and (Claude) Debussy in college, and I studied conducting. I’ve conducted orchestras across the world. I played in a band on college, a pop band. We’d go play in a club and I played Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder and The Beatles and I learned about that music, but big band. The big band genre’s where I live for sure.

SFL Music: Obviously, you were professionally trained?
Goodwin: Yeah.

SFL Music: What inspires you when you write?
Goodwin: You know what? Primarily other people’s music. I’m not one of those people that goes to the beach and looks at the sunset or goes up and communes with nature. I mean, I’m fine with that, but that doesn’t trigger music for me. Someone else’s music triggers it every time, and since I’ve worked in
T.V. and film for a lot of years, I’ve learned how to hit a deadline. A lot of times in that industry you can’t wait for inspiration. You have to have your craft so good that you can just go, put that first note down. Put the next one down and create your own inspiration from your own creative momentum I guess, and once you do that long enough, then you’ll find that the inspiration kind of sneaks in the back door as you’re working. So, I got good at that. I got good at if it wasn’t inspired, it was going to be pretty well put together from a craft standpoint and sometimes its inspired-on top of that. Well, you must feel that way as a writer. Sometimes it just flows out, right?

SFL Music: Yes, this is true.
Goodwin: Like you’re almost just taking dictation. Just kind of flowing, and other times you’re just like, that’s the word I want, oh gee, you know (he laughed).

SFL Music: That is very true. You definitely hit the nail on the head with that! So, I’m wondering. How different is it to compose a song for big band than when you are doing a cinematic score?
Goodwin: The essential difference is you’re writing for film the visual image is your, you know, that’s your target. That defines everything, so that the tempo that the film editor cut the scene together. There’s your tempo. You have to find that rhythm and you have to get in alignment with that and the other thing is your director and or your producer are gonna tell you what they like in terms of what kind of melodies do they like. Maybe they don’t like melody at all. Nowadays, film scores have changed. They’re more atmospheric and just kind of less obvious as music in terms of their presence in a film. Not all directors are that way. Some really love music. They love melodies. Like, think of John Williams and the films he does. So (Steven) Spielberg loves a big orchestral melody. He’s not afraid of having that be a character in the movie, whereas a lot of contemporary directors think that that takes you out of the movie. That that distracts you and makes it seem fake. So, that’s why they want music that’s very unintrusive in the background, and so that’s where is if I’m sitting there writing something for the Big Phat Band, I know the whole point of it is to have a personality and to have a real presence. So, pretty big differences there when it comes to you know, how you’re going to go about both of those tasks.

SFL Music: That’s very interesting because you’re written scores for Get Smart, Remember the Titans, Armageddon, Start Trek: Nemesis, Escape to Witch Mountain. There’s a variety. You’ve got a great resume.
Goodwin: Yeah, and I was working on a team of guys. Notably, a guy named Trevor Rabin who is the lead composer on most of those films. Trevor was in a rock band called Yes and he wrote the song “Owner of a Lonely Heart”. So, he was big time and then he moved into film scoring, and I had a relationship with him and so I was his conductor and lead orchestrator. Whatever he needed me to do, that I would do. So, I got to work on a lot of those projects, but it was wonderful and well compensating. Even with Trevor, there would be times we’d be pitching a cue to the director where you have to do a synthesizer or sample mockup of it to show them exactly as close as you can what it will sound like once we put the orchestra on. And we’re playing it for this guy and I won’t say his name ‘cause I have a little bit of sense left (he chuckled), and he goes,” why would you play that for me? How would you possibly think that this would work in this movie? What’s the matter with you? Are you trying to mess up my movie?” And we were like, well, no. We thought it was good. He goes, “you know what I want?” He goes “here’s what I want. I want a melody,” and he goes, “play that one part.” They played the end of it and there’s a little synthesizer, kind of a little incidental counter note up in the upper register going deedodeedodeedodeedo. He goes, “that’s the melody I want!” We’re like, that’s what you want? Well of course your response there is like, you got it! Absolutely great idea because that’s the job you have. If he wants deedodeedodeedodeedo, then here you go, but for me, when I hear a film score, I never judge the composer ‘cause I know I don’t know what he or she went through at their meetings with the creative team and whatever they want is what you have to do. Otherwise, you’re not going to get hired again.

SFL Music: You’ve won several Grammy awards. How does it feel when you receive those?
Goodwin: I’ve won four of them and I’ve been nominated 22 times, so I’ve lost more than I’ve won for sure, but I also am aware of what a long shot it is, even to get a nomination and much less to win. There’s so many factors and there are a lot of like, The Beach Boys never won a Grammy. So, there’s a lot of people that never did and it’s really surprising when you see that list. So, when you hear your name, I’ve become aware of a couple of things. One is that it’s like winning the lottery. That’s the first thing, and of course you revel in it and you take the joy of it, but I tell ya, like I did in the interview after one of my wins. After you give your speech and go backstage and there’s a guy there with a camera and mic. He goes, “now tell me what it feels like to win your Grammy?” And I said, you know, it’s so wonderful, but the truth is my music’s no better than it was before I won, and there are four guys out there right now who just lost and their music’s no worse. And the guys goes, “seriously man? That’s what you’re gonna give me?” (He laughed).

SFL Music: I think that’s a great answer!
Goodwin: I said, alright listen. I’m not saying it’s not amazing. It feels so gratified to my ego and I know this, that now I can put you know, four-time Grammy winner, and I can maybe get another gig or get another project or open a door that I couldn’t get opened because of the you know, esteem of it. That is it’s real value because if I lose, I don’t really write the music to win this. You know, you can’t. If you do that, you’re really screwed. So, you just have to write music that you believe in and if people like it then that’s really wonderful. Like for instance, the nominations were announced last week and we got shut out. (The) Gordian Knot didn’t get anything and we thought, just looking at the competition we thought, oh we’re gonna get a couple and nothin. So, when that happens you have to kind of tell yourself, look you can’t get caught up in the hype of it. As gratifying as it is, it’s not the point. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a blast to go to the Grammy’s and get dressed up and you know, hang out with everybody and even when you lose it’s a spectacle. It’s pretty unforgettable and I’m really grateful that I’ve gotten up to bat as much as I have, but I feel like my creative energy is still strong. I’m still you know, still have a lot of plans. A lot of music left to write. So, I’m gonna definitely keep at it.

SFL Music: That actually makes good advice for an up-and-coming musician, I think.
Goodwin: I think so. The first Big Phat record got two Grammy nominations and I didn’t even know how it worked. I didn’t submit it. I think somebody at the record label did and then all of the sudden I get a phone call and I never even considered that that was gonna be. I’d won four Emmy’s prior to that for some work in animation I did at Warner Bros. The Emmy’s were for, we were doing some cartoons for Steven Spielberg in the 90’s, but here’s the other thing that I’ve observed. It doesn’t hurt to have Steven Spielberg present in front of your nomination, right? When people are voting they go, “yeah Spielberg.” My first Grammy was for The Incredibles. The Pixar movie. That didn’t hurt, right? The second one was for an arrangement of “Rhapsody in Blue” by (George) Gershwin. Everybody loves “Rhapsody in Blue”. That didn’t hurt. My third one was for an arrangement I wrote of “On Green Dolphin Street” which is a classic jazz song that everybody loves. So, I essentially got to kind of hop on the shoulders of those titles. A Little bit of pre-existing awareness I guess you’d call it, but then the fourth Grammy was for our record LIFE IN THE BUBBLE. It was all my compositions. I think I probably have the most pride that we won for the Best Large Ensemble for that ‘cause we weren’t really on anyone else’s coat tails. Not that I’m dismissing the other ones cause they’re all amazing.

SFL Music: You’re working on a debut album with your wife?
Goodwin: Oh yeah, Vangie’s got, we’re working on her record. Trying to get it done for next year. Probably we’ll kind of release it as an EP, so we’ll probably get about five songs done and we’ll release those five, and then do another five and then release a CD after that. Vangie is, we got married July 31st. Last July. So, even though I’ve known her for fourteen years, she’s a great, great singer. I used to hire her to sing on sessions and you know, completely platonic. We were just friends and associates, and then she had a marriage break up and I had a marriage break up and then circumstances, and now here we are. So, second chances.

SFL Music: Well congratulations!
Goodwin: Thank you.

SFL Music: You’re welcome. Was there anything else for fans to look forward to with Big Phat Band or anything else you are working on?
Goodwin: Well, the Big Phat Band is working a couple of things right now. One of ‘em is a project with a string quartet. This is interesting given our discussion earlier of you know, combining styles. The string quartet is called Quartet San Francisco. They’re a traditional string quartet except not only do they play Mozart, but they also play jazz and blues and rock and roll. And not a lot of string players are able to do that, right? To play rock and roll without a drummer or a guitar player, but they figured out how to play their instruments in that way. So, we’re doing a project with them. We’ve recorded three songs so far and this is also interesting that we’re coming around to this because we’re doing a tribute to a composer named Raymond Scott, and Raymond Scott was a composer back in the thirties, forties and fifties. He wrote music that they used in Bugs Bunny cartoons. So, I got really familiar with his stuff when I was working at Warner Bros. His music is really quirky and you probably would recognize it if you heard it even though he’s one of those names people don’t know, but his music is infectious, and we’re working with the Raymond Scott estate on this project. We’re going to probably be bringing in a lot of other, like we’re bringing in the jazz a cappella group Take 6 to be on the track and different guest artists to participate in this kind of reimaging of the work of Raymond Scott. So, just kind of working on that right now. We’re gonna play the Hollywood Bowl Jazz festival. Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival used to be the Playboy Jazz Festival and now they’ve changed the name now that Hefs (Hugh Hefner) gone to Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival. We’re doing that.That’s in late June. We’ve played at the Hollywood Bowl four times now and I walk out on the stage, you know what I do? I give myself just five seconds to stand there and look out you know, at that iconic venue that I’ve gone to since I was a little kid. I just go ahh, how did I get here? And then take it in. Alright now get your ass over there. Get to work and give them a good show. So, that’ll be a highlight of the year for sure.

SFL Music: Was there anything else you wanted to add?
Goodwin: Oh, you know what? I can add one more thing. I acted in a movie recently. Yeah, this is really interesting too. The movie’s called the Knights Of Swing and it was directed by an old friend of mine who’s a piano player. He’s a great piano player, but over the years, over decades actually, he moved into acting as a character actor. Now he’s directing and he called me up he goes, “man I’m shooting this movie and there’s a part in it I think you’d be great for. I have like a jazz radio show here in L.A., so I think he had heard that and heard my performing abilities I guess to some extent, but he goes I have a hunch. So, I went onset and I had about four days of shooting on the movie, and they’re shopping it right now. It’s probably gonna be one of the streaming platforms and it’s all about a group of high school kids in the forties that want to put a band and be Benny Goodman. They want to be in this big competition called The Battle of The Bands and I play this kind of talent scout guy who has to decide if they’re gonna get in or not. So anyway, it was really a lot of fun and I got to kind of just play myself really. So, that movie’s probably going to be coming out, well actually, I think they’re converting it. It was gonna be a film and now I think they want it to be a series. So, I think they might re-edit everything, so instead of having it be kind of a long movie, it’ll be maybe eight to ten episodes of this you know, series. So, anyways that’s kind of a new thing for me, but its called the Knights of Swing and I guess we’ll see. They’re really getting some good interest. That would be interesting you know, to see a movie about and once again in the forties. Big bands, they were the rock and roll stars of that time.
So, it would make sense that these kids in a high school band would want to inspire to doing that.

Perfect role for a man who has been so inspiring musically and one for SFL Music readers to definitely keep their eyes open for Goodwin’s new amazing musical entertainment!

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