What’s New? Bill Holman, Always

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 Bill Holman Now.jpgchanges 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 theContemporary Concepts.jpg 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.

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  1. Dick McGarvin says

    On John LaBarbera’s website – http://www.johnlabarbera.com – there is a page called Arrangers. It shows LABARBERA’S ARRANGING TIPS FOR HIS STUDENTS. One of the items on the list is “Listen to Bill Holman”.
    Contemporary Concepts is, easily, my favorite Kenton album. The additional four tracks on the CD reissue seem out of place and don’t really belong, but, as you say, do provide a rather interesting comparison.

  2. says

    There was indeed a short period of time – between 1950 and 1955 – when Kenton’s men were allowed to swing more or less freely.
    On the other hand, when Stan Kenton did the experimental stuff like Bob Graettinger’s new music, quasi anti-big-band compositions, it was certainly a horrifying experience for some middle class college student when he expected something like “Eager Beaver” or “Stella By Starlight” with Charlie Mariano’s sultry alto sound.
    Bill Holman’s charts combined these drifting apart tastes: there was something in them for the jazz fan, and they also possessed enough intellectuality for the connoisseur, the listener who loved Bach’s counterpoints.
    Bill Holman did a fantastic concert in Cologne some twenty years ago. There were Al Cohn, Mel Lewis and Sal Nistico in the WDR big band too. I had the opportunity to talk to him and asked him about his early jazz influences. Two names came quick like a shot: Fletcher Henderson and Tadd Dameron. The first invented the ‘cool’ saxophone sound (Sometimes I’m Happy) and the striking dialogues between brass- and woodwinds-sections (Down South Camp Meeting). The latter was able to write for three horns and could make them sound like a big band (Tadd Walk).
    Bill Holman combined the mobility of the small ensemble with the block-like blast of a jazz orchestra. It’s amazing how he is able to built ecstatic climaxes in his arrangements, roaring tutti which originated from three simple (?) contrapuntally lead unison lines from trombones, trumpets and saxes.
    Alas, there is no time for going deeper into analysis. — A remark to the so called “bonus” tracks: well, I not too seldom consider them rather as fillers, than being actual “bonus”. (They even can be quite “malus”). Instead of using rejected alternates or loosely related charts, they could find some live-versions of the studio tracks from around the same time the album was recorded.
    In the studio is always a subconscious let’s-play-it-safe feeling. In front of an audience the same charts sound even more exciting and the soloists would dare more.

  3. Bill Kirchner says

    Twenty-some years ago, I was on a gig with Bob Haggart, who composed it, and I asked him what his favorite version of “What’s New?” was. He named the Kenton/Holman version. I later told this to Willis, who was understandably pleased.

  4. says

    I’m happy to say that I finally have all of the original album’s (Contemporary Concepts) charts in print with the publication of “Cherokee” this month. It has taken years for those who control copyrights to allow me to finally get them all in print and available to the world for study …. parts and full scores…..seven of the greatest big band charts ever written. We have sold many, many hundreds of copies of that marvelous music, and it is now being performed around the world.
    I personally entered every note into the computer notation program myself (I didn’t want anyone else to do it but me). Willis helped me a bit with “Savoy” (the original score is long gone, and the existing parts were not correct) by proofing changes I made. So we fixed them (I think). I grew up with that album and learned about swinging from Mel and writing from Willis.