Bill Holman, the acclaimed composer and arranger, sits in the light-filled living room of his Hollywood Hills home, talking about a recent piece of music, "Sweet Spot."
"I started off wanting to write a slow melody for trumpet, doing it like Miles, with the trumpet playing just a few notes," he said of the original chart, which features soloist Carl Saunders.
But soon the band backgrounds seem to sway and shift like a boat rocking around on the ocean, and, with Saunders offering peals of notes, the number has become decidedly more adventurous, but without sacrificing accessibility.
Fueled by a fondness for such disparate artists as Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Sonny Rollins, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Cream, Holman has been writing similarly unique works for jazz band for over four decades.
First there were such exciting and innovative pieces for Stan Kenton's orchestra as his original, "Invention for Guitar and Trumpet," and his arrangements of "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Stella by Starlight."
Then came numbers for big bands led by Kenton, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Gerry Mulligan, Louie Bellson and Doc Severinsen's "Tonight Show." He won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement in 1987 for his arrangement of "Take the A Train," recorded by Severinsen.
Today, at age 66, Holman continues to expand and explore new territory in a genre--the jazz big band--that, though many feel is all but headed for extinction, still offers unlimited musical possibilities.
Holman's compositions and arrangements for his own ensemble, and for such artists as Natalie Cole, are as compelling, creative and plain hard swinging as anything being done anywhere in jazz today.
"He's never been one to deliver the melody the way it was written," said Lennie Niehaus, the former Kenton alto saxophonist and film soundtrack composer (Clint Eastwood's "Bird," "Tightrope," and his upcoming "A Perfect World"). "He'll do things that are wild and unexpected, things that have freed the big band."
Holman, who leads his band Sunday at L.A. County Museum of Art, jokingly calls his predilection for finding the unheard element in a tune "perversity."
It's his natural thirst for something new and fresh, he said, that has led him to lengthen the form of "Stompin' at the Savoy"--"I just couldn't stand to do it the way it had been done for years"--or to arrange "Just Friends" with a six-chorus-long, full-ensemble written section that he likened to a trumpet solo at a jam session. It was his desire for the untried that found him putting a thumping New Orleans-ish Second Line rhythm on his version of Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing" and to mix his own flavors and those of experimental classicist Charles Ives on "I Didn't Ask."
One by one, Holman said, he's attempting to get rid of the characteristics that have defined writing in the past. For example, a Holman chart has long been known for its counterpoint, where two or more melodies, as played perhaps by the sax section and the trumpet section, are existing simultaneously.
"My (work) now seems to be to make it sound not so much like counterpoint as just another melody," said Holman. "Sometimes with counterpoint there has to be a lot of notes and I'm trying to smooth that out, get rid of the sound of an artifice. I'm trying to make the music sound like it just happened by itself, rather than somebody wrote it."
In the early '80s, Holman's thrust was to make his music more experimental in the manner of 20th-Century classical music. "It was fun, but it really didn't satisfy me that much, so I'm still trying to find new things but more in a jazz vein," he said. "I still think in terms of be-bop. I have that old melodic sense that I guess I'm never going to shake."
Today, in an era when big bands are not used that often, Holman continues to thrive. A good deal of his work is in Europe. For more than a decade, he has made an annual trek to Cologne, Germany, where he composes originals and arranges standards for the German Radio Orchestra and such soloists as Phil Woods. But there are also the domestic projects, from crafting a tender version of "Prelude to a Kiss" for the soundtrack to the film "Glengarry Glen Ross," to working with Cole on her smash Elektra release, "Unforgettable," and her current "Take a Look."
One of Holman's three arrangements for Cole's latest project, "Take a Look," is a finger-popping remake of the Moe Koffman instrumental, "Swingin' Shepherd Blues." He said that having worked with Cole on "Unforgettable" made his job here easier. "I knew she would get into the music as long as I kept it truthful, not make it cute or commercial," he said.
Holman's work for singers such as Anita O'Day and Sue Raney has been as highly regarded as his instrumental work for big bands.
"He knows how to accompany a singer, how not to get in (the) way, and then when the time comes to have a little orchestra segment, he knocks you on your butt," said Tommy LiPuma, who co-produced "Take a Look."
Examples of Holman's artistry can be found on numerous recordings. "The Bill Holman Band" (JVC) spotlights his ensemble, while everything he did for Kenton is included on "Stan Kenton: The Complete Capitol Recordings of the Holman and Russo Charts," available by mail from Mosaic Records (35 Melrose Place, Stamford, Conn. 06902).
Despite his fame among musicians and critics, Holman, at least since his Kenton days, has never achieved wide-ranging success with the general jazz public. Had he been less of an individual, he might have gained more exposure. His decision to stay in Los Angeles probably cost increased exposure and the larger audience that goes with it.
"If I had gone somebody else's way, I maybe would have made more money," he said. "But I think the trade-off between acceptance and the luxury of going my own way has been OK."