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Big Band Repertoire With 'Monkishness'

The versatile Bill Holman, whose group will play in Sherman Oaks, speaks admiringly of the jazz great.



That's the term bandleader/composer/arranger Bill Holman used to describe the qualities that drew him to the music of Thelonious Monk, the jazz piano and composing giant who, in the mid-'40s, was a chief architect of be-bop.

What Holman said he was referring to was the stark individuality of the man famed for the gorgeous ballad, " 'Round Midnight."

"His ideas were original, organic. There were no cliches," Holman said. "You don't think of him sitting down and working out a chord progression and then putting a tune to it." Rather, he said, Monk's songs sound as if he conceived of them whole, finished.

The vital 69-year-old Holman, who leads his big band on Tuesday at the Moonlight Tango Cafe in Sherman Oaks, has included orchestrations of Monk numbers in his repertoire for some time. Among the selections his band regularly performs are "Bemsha Swing," "Ruby, My Dear" and "Rhythm-a-ning." While the tunes lend themselves to adaptation, Holman said the orchestrations can be problematic.

"If you want to make an arrangement sound like Monk, you can use things he played, like wide intervals," said Holman, whose next JVC Records album, to be recorded in November, will be an all-Monk affair. "But it's a much different thing to write a piece that sounds like me, using his music."

Since the early '50s, when he began composing and arranging for Stan Kenton, Holman has had a reputation for forward-thinking music that employs counterpoint and has a singular style of swinging.

Holman's mark can readily be heard in his versions of such Monk tunes as "Misterioso" and "Bemsha Swing," a tune Monk recorded in 1956 on which drummer Max Roach also played timpani.

"I remember listening to 'Bemsha' and really enjoying the feeling Max got," Holman said. "When I wrote the chart, I told our drummer, Bob Leatherbarrow, to play louder than he usually does. Most of the time I like a light feel from the drums, but here I wanted a bigger sound."

Many listeners, among them ace drummer Jeff Hamilton, have commented that Holman's "Bemsha" has a rhythmic groove akin to the bubbling feel associated with the beat known as the New Orleans Second Line.

"I don't know about that," Holman said, "but most music has a dance feel if it isn't too fast."

To make "Misterioso" interesting, Holman juggled the melody between saxes and trombones in a slow, 4/4 blues tempo, while the rhythm section played in waltz time, providing tension.

Holman, a California native who lives in Hollywood, won his second Grammy last February for best instrumental composition for the title track from his latest album, "A View From the Side." He is as busy as he's ever been. Over the last few years, in addition to his jazz work, he's written for singers Natalie Cole, Tony Bennett and, most recently, Mel Torme, who recorded two Holman orchestrations before he suffered a minor stroke earlier this month. Those commissions are a blessing, he said.

"I'd probably write only what I wanted if nobody called and said, 'Do this,' " he said. "But it's nice to get those other things. They clear the head and the money's infinitely greater than writing jazz pieces."

But, happily, there continue to be the jazz pieces, among them a 25-minute work to be recorded by the Dutch Metropole Orchestra, a combination of big band and a string section, in late September in Hilversum, Holland. The commission will require Holman to draw on some of his classical influences--Bela Bartok, Gyorgy, Ligeti and Witold Lutoslawski--as well as his jazz roots, from Monk to Bob Brookmeyer. In the classic world, Bartok remains his prime source.

"After I listen to the others, he's the guy I always come back to," Holman said. "His is eternal music."

* Bill Holman's big band plays Tuesday, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., at the Moonlight Tango Cafe, 13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. $13 cover for 7:30 p.m. show, $9 cover for 9:30 p.m., $9.95 food or drink minimum. (818) 788-2000.

Something New: Latin/jazz violinist Susie Hansen recently made a few switches in her lineup, and is she happy with the result.

Hansen's band, which appears Sunday, 4 p.m., at the Jazz Explosion at the Burbank Starlight Bowl (1249 Lockheed View Drive; tickets, $5-10; 818-238-5300, 238-5400), now includes pianist Joey Rotondi, flutist/vocalist Gilberto Torres, and saxophonist Robert Incelli. "Robert is a strong player who delivers groovy solos," said Hansen, "and Gilberto is a wonderful flutist and entertaining singer. Joey, for my money, is as good as it gets in Latin jazz. He has a compelling, driving feel, creates an incredible groove and plays great solos. He was like the missing link in my band."

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