There were two beautiful key moments during the rousing, emotional and ultra-entertaining Christmas show by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band at Vibrato Grill Jazz where the storied composer, arranger and leader of what is perhaps the hippest big band in existence set aside his stature as a 4-time Grammy winning industry vet and offered the kind of childlike reflection that pairs perfectly with his 18 piece ensemble’s ongoing blasts of holiday cheer.
After the delightfully funked out, swinging jam through the opener “Carol of the Bells” (featuring a fiery tenor sax solo by Eric Marienthal) and a sassy romp through “Santa Baby” fueled by the soloing energy of Brian Scanlon (tenor sax) and Mike Rocha (trumpet), Goodwin – leading on piano and keyboards at stage left – mentioned just how remarkable it was that he and his storied ensemble were playing at the club owned by the legendary Herb Alpert. He cited fond memories of hearing Alpert’s classic “Taste of Honey” riding on the bus to school.
And although The Phat Band recorded John Williams’ iconic “Home Alone” theme “Somewhere in My Memory” on their 2015 holiday collection A Big Phat Christmas, Goodwin said that anytime he’s had the opportunity to meet with the legendary film composer and conductor, he gets tongue tied. Likewise, each time the band starts to perform his lighthearted, whimsical arrangement live, he thinks he’ll screw it up.
Charming humility aside, Goodwin and company nailed it with a magnificent version that came across like the emotional centerpiece of a show that mostly featured dynamic, alternately sensual/soulful and explosive arrangements of well-known carols and chestnuts a la “Little Drummer Boy” (done as an otherworldly super-hip Latin romp), “Hark The Herald Angels Sing,” “Winter Wonderland” (featuring a fun drums and brass call and response) and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Besides the Williams piece, one of the show’s most unexpected delights was a tasty Latin-tinged rendition of “A Christmas Carol,” a relatively obscure (think: new and fresh!) piece from the 1992 musical “Scrooged,” made all the more poignant because of the recent passing its legendary composer, Leslie Bricusse.
Hands down, however – and no offense to Goodwin’s always phenomenal, rhythmically and harmonically inventive group – the showstoppers were the first two numbers fronted by powerhouse jazz singer Vangie Gunn, a longtime part of the Phat Band experience who became Mrs. Goodwin this past summer. Her sassy, unbridled scat through “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (capped with another ace Marienthal solo and another by guitarist Will Brahm) and tastefully seductive, easy swinging on “The Christmas Song” created the performance’s biggest “wow” moments.
Between his recent marriage to Vangie, the recent release of the band’s critically acclaimed new EP The Reset and the fact that a large boisterous close-seat ensemble and its fans could gather at all after a dark musical holiday season in 2020, there was a lot for Gordon Goodwin and his Big Phat Band to celebrate – and it was wonderful to hear that manifested so festively and vibrantly on this early December night.