Months ago, Bill Kirchner sent a note about examples he was using in one of his New School classes for emerging composers. I set it aside, meaning to enlarge upon it. I just came across the tickler file reminding me. Clearly, my tickler system needs work. Here is Kirchner’s message. Where possible, I’ve added links.
Yesterday, I brought some scores/recordings to my New School comp/arr class for the students to check out. Among them were Bob Brookmeyer’s “The Nasty Dance” (an undersung masterpiece for Mel Lewis’s 1982 big band featuring Joe Lovano)*, two recent big-band pieces by Mike Gibbs (“Rumour Has It” and “Gather the Meaning”), and Holman’s classic “What’s New?” for Stan Kenton.
Holman once remarked that he wrote the “What’s New?” chart after hearing the 3rd and 4th Bartók String Quartets. If you play a recording of the opening to the 3rd Quartet and then the Kenton recording, you’ll hear the similarity.
*(Unforgivably out of print — DR)
In his play-by-play notes to the Mosaic box set, Stan Kenton: The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Holman and Russo Charts (out of print), Will Friedwald quotes Holman on the gestation of his arrangements of “What’s New?” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” another piece Kenton wanted for his Contemporary Concepts album.
Holman: The idea for these two tunes was to write long charts, based on standard tunes, but to make them like an original piece. Just use the changes or a (melodic) fragment to tie it together; in other words, make them like an original – although you don’t get royalties for it! But they were double the length of the usual chart. You could stretch out and do what you want. I remember the day we were all in New York, as part of the ’54 All Star Concert Tour with the Kenton guys plus Shorty Rogers and his Quintet. They were going to continue on but I was going to stay there. I remember Shorty, Jack Montrose and I were walking down 48th Street where all the music stores were. We started looking through some scores and I found Bartok’s Third and Fourth Quartets.
I remember after the band left and I finally got down to writing these charts I was looking through the Bartok things and I got an idea for “What’s New.” Sometimes looking at something like that can give you an idea – not necessarily something that’s specifically in there – but just puts something you can use into your head. Just an approach. Stan said to make ‘em long and not worry bout keeping the melody going all the time. The standard changes are there so you can follow them if you’re used to listening to jazz that way.
“What’s New” is the lead track on Contemporary Concepts, generally considered the best album of Kenton’s career. Recorded in 1955, it also includes “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Stella By Starlight,” “Cherokee,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “Yesterdays,” all arranged by Holman, and Gerry Mulligan’s arrangement of his own “Limelight.”
Bill Kirchner is no newcomer to admiration for the older arranger. Years ago, preparing a piece about Holman, I asked several arrangers about him. Kirchner said,
Bill Holman is “Mr. Line.” His linear concepts are among the most important innovations ever used in a jazz orchestra. His chart on “What’s New” on the Contemporary Concepts album for Kenton is a masterpiece.”
And so it is, a perennial example for arrangers and a joy for listeners. The producers of the CD reissue added four tracks from Kenton’s “Opus” genre, respectable journeyman works whose unintended effect is to emphasize the brilliance of the original Contemporary Concepts charts.