Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
, a select few of those who maintain the country’s artistic traditions or make a unique contribution to them are accorded the respect of the nation by being designated as a Living National Treasure [a considerable amount of schimolies also come with the title each year]. Japan
When it comes to composing and arranging for Jazz big bands, no one is more deserving of such consideration than Willis “Bill” Holman.
However, because this country does not have such an award, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has decided to step up on behalf of grateful Jazz fans everywhere and to bestow upon Bill the distinction of being a Living International Treasure.
Christian Jacob is hugely busy heading up his on trio, working with vocalist Tierney Sutton and performing in a number of Southern California based bands such as those led by trumpeter Carl Saunders as well as Phil Norman’s Tentet. But Christian also makes it a point to appear regularly with Bill Holman’s big band.
Christian is a friend of the family so when I asked him about working with Bill despite his choc-a-block schedule he candidly responded: “It’s an honor and a privilege.”
The last guy in the world to use such superlatives about himself would be Bill Holman.
Yet, I’ve have never known a musician who doesn’t have the utmost respect for Bill and who wouldn’t feel the same way as Christian about the chance to work with him.
Mention Bill’s name and Jazz musicians and Jazz fans just smile – knowingly!
And speaking of “knowingly,” when we decided to do a feature on Bill and his music, we turned to Doug Ramsey to request permission to use some of his many writings about Bill and his music which appear as insert notes in a number of Bill’s CD’s.
Doug, whose marvelous writing skills are on exhibit daily in his Rifftides blog graciously gave his approval to do so.
Doug, whose marvelous writing skills are on exhibit daily in his Rifftides blog graciously gave his approval to do so.
After you’ve read these, we think you will agree that no one writes more insightfully about Bill’s music.
But before turning to Doug’s writing and in order to put Bill Holman’s career in an earlier perspective, let’s start with some comments from Andre Previn who at the time he wrote these liner notes to Bill Holman in a Jazz Orbit [Andex A 3004/V.S.O.P. #25CD] was a pianist and a fledgling conductor-composer of Hollywood film scores.
Each in their own way, both Andre and Doug are also “Living International Treasures,” but those are other JazzProfiles stories for another time.
© -Andre Previn, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Bill Holman's compositions and arrangements are both experimental and basic at the same time; they never for one moment cease swinging, and yet their rhythmic complexities are brilliant. His harmonic sense is quite daring at times, and still his changes are comfortable and logical to play on. All his pieces have form and definite orderliness; they have strength and an underlying feeling of 'There's something left in reserve, this isn't the climax yet."
His voices are for the most part linear and his sections play a good deal in unison; however, the interweaving of the lines is so assured and musically sophisticated as to create a bigger harmonic sound than the thickest of chordal arranging. He builds his arrangements carefully and soundly and rarely succumbs to the screaming flag-waver ending so popular with many big bands.
He has limited himself to the orthodox jazz instrumentation; trumpets, trombones, saxes and rhythm, but his knowledge of their possibilities is enormous. Being a highly talented instrumentalist himself, his arrangements are relatively easy to play. Everything lies well on the horns, a fact for which Bill is looked upon with gratitude by the playing musicians.
He is very fond of the use of canonic imitation in his writing, and uses it to great advantage throughout this album. From a composer-arranger's point of view, he has already arrived at an enviable position: namely that his style is totally distinctive, recognizable, 'and personal; it is possible to say "That's Bill Holman" after listening to 8 bars of his music, and that is a very major accomplishment for a creative musician.
Bill was born in
in 1927. He played clarinet and tenor before first attempting to write. He worked with Ike Carpenter, Charlie Barnet, Stan Kenton, Shelly Manne, the Lighthouse All-Stars and Shorty Olive, California Rogers, and is currently the co-leader of a Quintet with Mel Lewis. Needless to say, he has written for all the above-mentioned as well as for countless other libraries.
In this album, which is comprised of four originals and five standards, Bill has attempted to integrate the light rhythm section sound and time feel of a small group with the orchestral possibilities of a big band. The personnel of this recording band is remarkable, and the soloists (including Bill) contribute some wonderful moments. Special mention should be made of the rhythm section (Mel Lewis, Vic Feldman, Buddy Clark) for so brilliantly accomplishing what Bill set out to do.
I think it best to forego descriptions of the individual tracks; however, one more facet of the writing should be mentioned. In the 5 standards, Bill has a knack of turning the tunes into completely personal compositions as soon as the theme has been stated. His counter lines and extensions, both melodically and harmonically, are such that were he to leave out the first sixteen bars of the published melody, he could very easily pass each arrangement off as a highly respectable original.
Bill Holman most assuredly is a first-rate saxophonist, but his true instrument is the orchestra, and he plays it with musicianship, honesty and brilliance.”
August 12, 1958
© -Doug Ramsey. Used with permission, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"At last, we have a new Bill Holman album, cause to celebrate. It is the second by the band Holman has led since 1975 and only the seventh by a big band under his name. In a 45-year career, his average is one album every seven-and-a-half years.
Averages can be deceiving. Four of the seven Holman big band albums were recorded in the mid-to-late 1950s. From Capitol's Bill Holman's Great Big Band in 1960 to JVC's Bill Holman Band in 1988, there was nothing.
The fact that he wasn't recording with his own band doesn't mean that Bill was sitting around. Holman is one of the most influential and admired arrangers in modern American music. He is also one of the busiest. He is acclaimed for his writing for Charlie Barnet, Stan Kenton, Count Basic, Maynard Ferguson, Gerry Mulligan, Louis Bellson, Woody Herman, Terry Gibbs, Shelly Manne, the Lighthouse All Stars, Charlie Shoemake and Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show Orchestra. His arrangements for Carmen McRae, The Fifth Dimension, Peggy Lee, Natalie Cole and other singers gleam like jewels in the jumble and dreariness of contemporary popular music. He is commissioned by colleges, universities and music festivals in this country. He is frequently called to
Europe to write for and conduct orchestras in , Germany and Holland . England
The naturalness and humanity underlying the mastery in Holman's music make his work an object of admiration and inspiration to other composers and arrangers, including those at the highest levels. He discussed the basics of his approach in a 1987 interview in the magazine Crescendo International:
"I could describe my ideals in jazz writing as: continuity and flow, combined with swing and vitality, with a fairly traditional base. It's got more involved as time's gone by, but basically those are my guiding principles."
My father was not a musician. But he knew a thing or two about how to assess quality, and he disliked hyperbole. When I was in the early stages of teenagery, I once used a collection of superlatives to tell him about a pianist I'd heard.
"Oh, really," my dad replied, "and what do other piano players think of him?"
The Art Ramsey peer review method of analysis is the equivalent of the carpenter's level, a useful way to keep ignorance, excessive enthusiasm and rampant opinion from destroying balance.
What do other arrangers and composers think of Bill Holman? A survey of elite jazz writers of several generations will give you an idea.
MANNY ALBAM: "The guy is one of my heroes and has been ever since I first heard one of his charts. He's just off-center enough to make everything interesting. He puts together beautiful stuff. In 'Make My Day,' which I heard around the time he first did it for a band in
, he took another step into the unknown with those twists and turns in the trombones." Germany
BOB BROOKMEYER: "Of all the other peoples' music I've played in my life, I'd rather play Bill Holman's. He makes it such a delight. It's so naturally well crafted that it speaks when you play it. For all of us who are composers, he's been a role model in multi-voice writing and experimenting with longer forms. He was one of the first to do that and is still one of the most successful."
RALPH BURNS: "I love Bill's writing, always have. It's pure jazz, but he writes everything very classically. It’s linear and simple and clear.”
BENNY CARTER: “I like Bill’s work. Everything he’s done that I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed very much.”
JOHN CLAYTON: “For my money, Bill Holman is the king of linear composing and arranging. I am really fond of the things he did with Mel Lewis and later with Jeff Hamilton on drums. He always seems to have drummers and rhythm section people who understand how they are to fit into his linear concepts."
DENNIS MACKREL: "As an arranger listening to Bill's music, you come across devices and lines that are part of your writing, which means that he has become part of you. He does more with two lines than most arrangers can do with twenty. He runs a simple idea through all the ensembles and makes everything sound amazingly full. Five bars, and you know it's him. I was part of a project Bill did for a German radio orchestra in Kiln. He wrote a suite that involved full
strings and the big band. Being inside that incredible sound was an experience I'll never forget."
JOHNNY MANDEL: "An immensely talented guy. His music is ageless. It's easy to play. It flows. And there's always a sense of humor. The things he wrote in the fifties sound as if they were written yesterday. Nobody can write counterpoint and make it sound improvised and have it swing like Bill does. You can tell an arrangement of Holman's the minute you hear it. He is a total original. "
BOB MINTZER: "To me, Bill is the consummate big band arranger and composer. He has influenced most of the contemporary big band writing of the past twenty years in one way or another. I'm very fond of the way he uses certain kinds of contrapuntal techniques. He's a very colorful arranger, interesting and intelligent. He uses the big band instrumentation thoughtfully and thoroughly. I'm a big fan. People say they hear his influence in my writing and I'm sure that's true."
GERRY MULLIGAN: "Along with his other more obvious qualities as a writer, Bill possesses a great sense of humor; his music is fun to play, and that's something I admire very much."
MARIA SCHNEIDER: "Bill Holman has a sound, a beautiful and personal sound. I'll never forget the impact his wonderful arrangement of 'Just Friends' had on me. It's so daring, so simple, and so uniquely and perfectly him. It has just the bare ingredients, but through it comes his sound. It's impossible for him not to be him. That's the definition of a true artist."
ARTIE SHAW: "Bill's a great arranger. He's one of the guys out there who's extending the medium, illuminating the material. His work is extremely interesting. He's writing great American music. It's nice to do what you do so well that knowledgeable people buy it. You don't get rich that way; he's never going to cruise the
Aegean like Rod Stewart does. But who wants to listen to Rod Stewart? Bill is what an artist ought to be."
GERALD WILSON: "Bill is one of the best writers that we have today. He's a fine scorer with his own way of doing things and making them sound great. I listen for the overall sound of a band. I'm always impressed with his."
Following evaluations by artists of the stature of those quoted above, it would superfluous to add detailed analysis of the music in A View From The Side. The compositions, arrangements and performances speak eloquently for themselves. The soloists are identified in an adjoining exhibit. Bill says that the titles of his compositions here have no significance beyond the obvious. He has short explanatory comments on three of the pieces.
"The second half of the opening phrase of Petaluma Lu' came to me when I was practicing the tenor saxophone," he says. "Then I had to devise a first half to go with it. The form of 'I Didn't Ask' is like that of Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question,' with the trumpet statement and all of those busy voices. 'The Peacocks' has been in the book for a while, but I wasn't happy with it until we switched from trumpets to flugelhorns. Then it came together." I will offer one observation that a listener may find useful: For all its humor, swing and accessibility, Mr. Holman's music has depths, layers and complexities. Enjoyable as the surfaces of his pieces may be, beneath them are satisfactions that reveal themselves only when they receive full attention in repeated hearings. Such is the nature of serious music that is full of fun, whether it is by Mozart, Ives, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker or Bill Holman."
-DOUG RAMSEY (May 1995)
Author, Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of its Makers (
); contributor, Jazz Times; contributing editor, University of Arkansas Press Monthly. Texas
© -Doug Ramsey. Used with permission, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"Except for '"Round Midnight," Thelonious Monk the composer is all but absent from the repertoires of big bands. Hall Overton's celebrated arrangements for Monk and large ensembles were essentially orchestrated transcriptions of Monk piano solos. They were beautifully made and well recorded in the late 1950s on the
Riverside label and early 1960s on . They inspired masterly solos from Phil Woods, Donald Byrd, Pepper Adams, Steve Lacy and Monk himself. They were reflections of Monk's compositional and improvisational genius, not vehicles for the art of the arranger. Columbia
Another big band project involving Monk blew its potential. Oliver Nelson, a brilliant arranger, wrote a 1968 album called Monk's Blues, but it turned out to be a collection of routine settings for Monk solos. The arrangements neither probed the uniqueness of Monk's compositions nor demonstrated Nelson's talent as an orchestrator. It may have been the only dud of Nelson's career. Until now, oddly, no other major arranger has applied himself to a collection of Monk's works.
Willis Leonard Holman, known as Bill, called Willis by his friends, is universally considered a towering figure among jazz writers. He has been a Monk fan since he first heard the celebrated 1958 live recordings Monk made at
's Five Spot with Johnny Griffin, Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Art Blakey and Roy Haynes. New York
"Before that, I had known "Round Midnight,' and had played 'Well, You Needn't' and other pieces of his in jam sessions as early as 195O," Holman says. "In the fifties, Monk was a hard sell. You know what they said: 'He can't play. His tunes are so weird. He doesn't follow the cycle of fifths like you're supposed to.' Piano players really used to hate him. I suppose some still do. His technique was so far removed from what everybody was doing. But, little by little, people have come around. You have to spend a lot of time to get Monk inside."
Holman internalized Monk long ago. He has had Monk pieces in his band's book since the 1970s and included "I Mean You" in his 1988 JVC album Bill Holman Band. In preparing for this compact disc, he sought out Monk's recordings to identify the pieces he wanted to arrange, but once those decisions were made, he cut off contact with Monk."
"I wanted to do it my way," Holman says, "so I decided to leave the area."
Holman says that his writing for the Monk pieces is more like the work he has been doing the past few years for orchestras in
, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Holland
"I'd always had that American big band thing in the back of my head when I was writing for my band," he says. "I didn't feel that the traffic in this country would bear too much 'out' stuff, that Americans like big bands to sound like big bands. This has abrupt changes in texture and mood, operating outside of the typical dance band vocabulary."
In recent years, Holman has been applying lessons from 20th Century classical composers. Those writers include Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives, Witold Lutoslawksi, Gyorgy Ligeti and, most powerfully, Bela Bartok. The attentive listener can detect their touches -some specific, some atmospheric - in Holman pieces like "Further Adventures" for the Metropole Orchestra in Holland and "City of Angles" for the
WDR Orchestra of Cologne. The classical influences are present in this collection of Monk compositions. While it may be helpful to know that they exist, they are simply colors in Holman's highly individual palette, not keys to the nature of his work.
"It's great to do things like that because jazz bands were locked into that four-part harmony for so many decades that to get away from it completely is freedom. Some of the guys in the band are still trying to figure out how these things fit into the harmonic scheme. Well, a lot of times, there isn't any harmonic scheme."
Having understood and accepted that harmony can be background but not a strict guide, in "Friday the 13th" trumpeter Ron Stout divorces himself from the idea of harmonic changes and improvises on the same four bars repeatedly and brilliantly. His solo is so unified that the listener untutored in harmony is likely to simply think of it as one hell of a trumpet chorus, which it is. Bill Perkins, who at the age of 72 keeps renewing himself, demonstrates the same spirit and boldness in this piece and, for that matter, in his alto and soprano saxophone solos throughout the album.
As another example of his expanded thinking, Holman offers the introduction to "Brilliant Corners," which is far removed from most definitions of the big band sound. He mentions allowing more freedom in the development of melodic lines so that they don't always conform to the underlying harmony. He talks about getting away from the stereotype of the riff-style big band shout chorus, although he says, "I did it in 'Thelonious.' It was the only way I could go with that one."
Other times, as in "Bye Ya," he alludes to the tradition, with the saxes riffing and the brass shouting on top. "That's really going back," he says. It's not that serious. It's kind of humorous. It says, 'let's get down and swing.'" Like the Charles Ives lick in the ensemble of "Brilliant Corners," it is another manifestation of Holman's craftsmanship and his humor.
"It's kind of corny, in a way, but Ives did it and I've always wanted to work it in. With my band full of introverts," says Holman, who himself is hardly Type A, "I really had to work on them to give it a little brio."
Following a live performance of many of the Monk charts in the spring of 1997 at the Moonlight Tango, a
club, Holman allowed that he was pleasantly surprised at the enthusiastic audience reception. Perhaps American listeners are changing their thinking. Los Angeles
The change in his own thinking was stimulated in the late 1970s when Bob Brookmeyer, valve trombonist and fellow arranger-composer, commissioned Holman to write an album. Brookmeyer planted the seed of freedom when Holman asked him what he wanted.
"What Brookmeyer said boiled down to, 'use your imagination,'" Holman remembers. "That sounds simple, but the more I thought about it, I realized that it meant not being locked in to the traditional big band format."
Holman had hardly been a captive of conventional musical thought. From his first works for Stan Kenton, he had the gift of investing complex music with the appearance of simplicity. His arrangements were accessible to lay ears, yet satisfying to musicians. His charts were rich in harmonic sophistication, rhythmic challenges and interwoven lines, but they could be heard as swinging big band performances, even as music for dancing. He had that dual ability in common with Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans, Thad Jones, Gerry Mulligan and very few other modern arrangers. All of them, it must be said, were inspired by Duke Ellington. …
Monk should have stayed around for this one.”
© -Doug Ramsey. Used with permission, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“This is the first album since 1997 by The Bill Holman Band. Why there was so long an interregnum between recordings by an essential cultural institution requires a discussion of conditions in the music industry and the society at large. You will not find that discussion here. Let us simply shout hooray, and praise impresario Ken Poston for including the band in one of his periodic jazz events, and Graham Carter of Jazzed Media for capturing the performance. The occasion was "Stratospheric," a four-day tribute to Maynard Ferguson, who for more than half a century has used his trumpet to explore even beyond the stratosphere.
Once he got underway as a writer, Willis quickly developed to a degree that put him on a level with Gerry Mulligan, who had been an inspiration to him, and with other master arrangers of his generation — Bob Brookmeyer, Thad Jones, Al Cohn, Johnny Mandel, Manny Albam. He wrote not only for Kenton, but also for Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band, Maynard Ferguson, Terry Gibbs, the Tonight Show Orchestra, Louie Bellson, Shelly Manne and Buddy Rich. Singers yearn to have him arrange for them. Among the lucky ones have been Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Natalie Cole and Delia Reese.
Typical of how a slightly older generation of arrangers regards Holman is something the late Ralph Burns told me about Willis's writing: "It's pure jazz, but he writes everything very classically. It's linear and simple and clear." From one younger arranger, Bill Kirchner: "His linear concepts are among the most important innovations ever used in a jazz orchestra," and another, Don Sebesky: "I hear nothing, past or present, that comes close to (his writing) because he combines the objective and subjective parts of music into a seamless whole." From a contemporary, Bob Brookmeyer: "Of all the other peoples' music I've played in my life, I'd rather play Bill Holman s. He makes it such a delight. It's so naturally well crafted that it speaks when you play it."
Ken Poston s extravaganzas attract enthusiasts from several continents. A few are wallowers in nostalgia, but most are discerning listeners who keep up with musical developments and are acutely attuned to the content of what they're hearing. Being of sound mind and aware of his patrons' preferences, Poston frequently features Holman. The "Stratospheric" Holman recital was doubly auspicious because Willis brought from his storehouse several new pieces for the band that he has led since 1975. He rehearses every Thursday morning at the American Federation of Musicians Local 47 union hall in
. It is one big band rehearsal for which it is never difficult to get enough players. The subs stand in line, hoping to get in on the challenge and fun of playing Willis's charts. Hollywood
Some of the members of the 2004 edition of the band are new since Holman's last recording, but the musicianship and camaraderie are on the same high plane. In the course of the concert recording, Willis introduces the band and identifies the soloists. To shanghai the nearest applicable cliché, the music speaks for itself, but permit me to point out a couple of delights if only because it is fun to attempt to peg some of Holman's gamesmanship.
In "Woodrow," leading up to
Christian Jacob's piano solo, Willis has the trumpets and the trombones play catch with a triplet figure. The reeds expand on the figure in ascent and Jacob echoes it as he begins his solo. Midway through Ray Herrmann's tenor sax solo, triplet figures emerge again, this time tossed back and forth between the trumpets and the reeds, but only momentarily. The triplets make a final appearance in the ascending lines the sections play to end the piece. It is one of the threads that holds the arrangement together. Another, recalling the trombone section's opening notes, is Bob Efford s baritone sax combination of punchy off-beat quarter notes, and long tones. The baritone provides underscoring as the brass and reeds intermingle phrases that add up to the sort of thing Brookmeyer was talking about when he said that Holman's arrangements speak. This is musical conversation of the highest order.
"Donna Lee" gets a straight exposition of the famous melody. Well, a relatively straight reading; during the unfolding of the line, don't miss the slight dissonances, and the subtle jabs by the horns. As Bob Enevoldsen begins the second chorus of his valve trombone solo, a Holman countermelody slides beneath him. Keep it in mind. You'll meet parts of it again in a variation in the band passage that comes next. Holman reels out one of his written choruses that has swing so natural, ideas so flowing and logical, that it sounds like a transcription of a solo by some undiscovered master improviser. Eight bars into the next chorus, the band soli transmutes into a passage with strands of melody from groups of horns interwoven so intricately that the term counterpoint seems inadequate to describe what happens. Then, with his gift for dynamics, Holman continues the intensity while shading down the volume
and suspending all but Jacob's piano, making the beginning of Doug Webb's superb tenor solo seem a whispered promise that a mystery is about to be revealed. After Webb, comes the closest thing in the arrangement to a traditional big band shout chorus, then twenty decidedly nontraditional bars of collective noodling that might have been inspired by
Alan Hovahness, Gyorgy Ligeti or one of the other Twentieth Century composers Holman reveres. A final chorus of melody leads to an ending that elicits shouts of surprise from the audience and, no doubt, a grin from Holman.
A fellow saxophonist once asked Lester Young for advice about mouthpieces. Young told him, "I can tell you about my mouthpiece in my mouth. I can't tell you about your mouthpiece in your mouth." I have told you a little about how my brain receives some of Holman's work through my ears. One of the gratifying things about serious music of this quality is that it will reward different listeners differently. Because Bill Holman's music has layers of complexity and depth, and an unlimited shelf life, it will further reward each of us each time we hear it.”
Doug Ramsey’s latest book is Take Five: The Public and Private Lived of Paul Desmond Parkside, http://www.parksidepublications.com/
Bill may be displeased with our selection for the audio track on the following video tribute to him because it uses an arrangement that he wrote for a 1958 recording session. His writing has obviously evolved considerably over the past 50+ years.
However, for those of us who first heard his charts in this style, he usually includes this version of The Man I Love in concert performances by his current band for those of us who have made the trip with him to this point; nostalgia notwithstanding.
The solos are by Jack Sheldon [tp], Richie Kamuca [ts], Vic Feldman [p], and Carl Fontana [tb].