Live Jazz: The Bill Holman Big Band Upstairs at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

Bill Holman and his big band made one of their rare but always welcome Southland appearances Friday night at Vitello’s.  And, with a packed house listening avidly to every note, Holman once again displayed his remarkable mastery of the big band format.

One could make a good case for big band instrumentation – trumpet, trombone and saxophone sections supported by a three or four person rhythm section – as the symphony orchestra of America’s twenty century jazz and pop music, reaching from the Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Paul Whiteman bands of the ‘20s and ‘30s through Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Oliver Nelson into the present. Whether it was performing music for dancing, for backing singers, for sheer jazz excitement or for movie soundtracks, classic big band sounds have been (and continue to be) an assemblage of tonal textures and rhythms with a seemingly limitless array of possibilities.

And Bill Holman has explored the full fledged expression of those qualities for six decades with a seemingly limitless range of inventive creativity.  As he did at Vitello’s.

The Bill Holman Big Band

Standing amid the tables to implement his characteristically modest conducting, he led his assemblage of world class L.A. master players in a stunning collection of classic big band arrangements and originals.

Holman’s unique style, first heard during his early writing for Stan Kenton in the ‘50s, has remained one of the most uniquely original big band arranging techniques.  Combining contrapuntal methods rarely heard in big jazz band arranging, often interlacing individual instruments from different sections, Holman does so while still retaining deeply intimate contact with the propulsive rhythmic swing essential to jazz.

Given both the challenges and the pleasures of performing his charts, it’s no wonder that Holman’s band was a stellar gathering, glittering with the presence of some of the finest, most musically sophisticated musicians in Los Angeles (or anywhere).

Pete Christlieb and Doug Webb

The program of Holman arrangements and originals kept offering one fascinating piece after another.  Among the many high points:

– A hard-driving, entertaining tenor battle between saxophonists Pete Christlieb and Doug Webb.

– An unlikely, but delightfully offbeat new view of the ‘30s Dorothy Lamour hit, “The Moon of Manakoora.”

– “No Joy In Mudville,” a jaunty Holman original inspired by the popular baseball-inspired poem, Casey at the Bat.

– Holman’s atmospherically perfect interpretations of several jazz classics, including Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” and Sonny Rollins” “St. Thomas” and “Airegin.”

– A rendering of “Lover Man” featuring Bruce Babad’s superb, bebop-driven soloing.

– Along with prime solo contributions from, among numerous others, Ron Stout, Carl Saunders and Bob Summers

But, as always, it was the combination of Holman’s uniquely stylistic writing, performed by an impressive array of players, that made the program so memorable.  Which is usually the case when the Holman Big Band performs.

Reminding us of the importance of hearing the live music of a jazz giant – Holman, in this case – whenever the opportunity arises.

To read an iRoM Q & A with Bill Holman, click HERE.

Photos by Faith Frenz.


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