Monday, September 23, 2019

Album review: XXL by Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band

We've finally made it. Today I'm reviewing a jazz CD. And it's not just easy jazz album, either. It's the one that got me hooked on jazz.

In high school, I was just starting to take guitar playing really seriously. I joined the school jazz band as something fun to do, and was quickly hooked. During my first year of playing jazz, my band played the ninth track on XXL, "The Jazz Police". As a budding jazz musician, this song was exactly what I needed to hear.

I love energetic music. I love everything exciting, fast, and loud. Prior to hearing the Big Phat Band, I had no idea just how exciting a jazz band could sound. In my defense, I grew up with 1940s big band swing as my only exposure to jazz, and those recordings are honestly pretty tame sounding from today's perspective. When I finally heard a top class modern big band, I was completely unprepared for how amazing it would sound. Instead of sounding like a fuzzy mess, you can actually hear what's going on in every part of Gordon Goodwin's arrangements, and hear every little detail clear as day. We take that for granted now, but most big band recordings were made before music production really took off.

As amazing as the Big Phat Band sounds, I know now that a CD still doesn't even come close to matching a live big band sound, just like old recordings of Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington's bands can't compare to what big band records sound like now. I've heard some really good big bands in person over the years, and each time they blow me away. But without some gateway into jazz, I might never have taken the style seriously.

XXL was an excellent gateway to jazz for me. I don't really listen to big band music that much anymore; my tastes have definitely shifted towards smaller groups as I've learned what I like. But when it comes to modern big band music, it's really hard to beat Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band for me. The arrangements are top class, the soloists are incredible, and the melodies are both catchy and modern sounding.

And yet... most of the songs on XXL aren't all that memorable to me. There are a standout few, of course, including "What Sammy Said", "Thad Said No", and "Hunting Wabbits". When I listen to XXL, it's usually as background music when I'm doing something else. It's excellent and amazing and all that, but aside from a few songs I really like, the album as a whole doesn't quite capture my interest the same way my favorite jazz albums do. I'm willing to bet, however, that this album would be much better to listen to live, or even just with a video to see what the band is doing and give it some visual interest. The quiet parts of the album are so quiet it can be hard to pay attention to, and the shout sections are so comparatively loud that I can't really turn the volume up to hear the quiet parts without being constantly ready to turn it down again. This wouldn't be a problem in a live setting.

Overall, I give XXL a score of two stars out of five. There are absolutely some five star songs, but not everything on the CD is quite my cup of tea. That's totally fine though, the presence of music I don't like does nothing to detract from the fact that there's plenty of music I do like. My favorite track, even after all this time, is still "The Jazz Police".

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