It’s always a good sign when professional musicians voluntarily sing the praises of the composer featured on the evening’s concert.
And that’s exactly what happened Saturday night at Temple College as the Temple Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Tom Fairlie took on the knotty and complex musical compositions and arrangements of Bill Holman.
“I’ve been listening to Holman for like, 30 years,” said Colin Mason, teacher of saxophone at TC and a stalwart of the TJO’s sax section. With a doctorate in music, Mason knows whereof he speaks: “(Holman’s) one of the most inventive, creative big band writers.”
Byron Swann, jazz trumpet soloist with the TJO, echoed Mason’s praises. “Holman is one of the greatest, and these charts are very challenging.”
A Bill Holman original, “Only The Greatest” kicked off the concert in time-honored flag-waver style. Although some critics have charged Holman’s arrangements as prolix and complicated, the element of swing is never neglected, and this composition bristled and strutted with attitude. His altered chords, well balanced by Fairlie’s musicians, brought a hint of the arranger’s Kenton-era sonorities.
Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely?” may seem a rather outre choice for a hardcore jazz arranger, but in Holman’s melodic and harmonic world it’s fair game for a big band shout-out.
The TJO’s wall of trombones stated the melody in a can’t-miss fashion, tenor saxophonist Greg Bashara set forth a smoking solo, and the arrangement built inexorably, with lead trumpet Keith Fiala providing the final over-the-top musical moment.
Speaking of his individuality and his different treatment of melodies, Holman has been steadfast. “My melodies have a sound to me,” he has said, and his gentle approach to the Hoagie Carmichael standard, “Star Dust” affirmed his words. The tune, lovingly set forth in a trumpet solo performed by Swann, was always recognizable but never predictable.
The TJO seems blessed with an abundance of first-call musicians; Dave Wild and Benjamin Irom alternated on piano and besides the always inventive Swann, Sparky Thomason handled trumpet improv duties. The tasteful timekeeping of Norm Bergeron on drums and his use of dynamics — softer as well as gung-ho percussion pyrotechnics — kept the concert intriguing and swinging.
An unexpected delight for the audience of about 180 was the warm-up band: the Temple High School Highlighters Jazz Ensemble, directed by Brent Matheson. This group, with its full Duke Ellington mojo cranked to overdrive, opened with a brilliant Thad Jones arrangement of the aptly titled “Groove Merchant” and then channelled the essential Ellington spirit in a crowd-pleasing “Ellington Jungle Medley” that had almost every student in the orchestra at the microphone for a solo turn.