Bill Holman arranged only one album for the Count Basie band while Basie was alive. The little-known album is I Told You So, recorded in January 1976 for Pablo Records. What makes this Basie album exceptional is Bill's powerful musical intellect and explosive sense of swing.
Throughout Bill's career, Basie has been a recurring influence. Bill's decision in the late 1940s to become an arranger was influenced largely by the intoxicating appeal of the Basie band of that era. Then when Bill was arranging for Stan Kenton's orchestra in the early 1950s, Bill was already listening to Basie's newly formed "New Testament" band. The Basie-inspired results included Kenton Showcase: Music of Bill Holman (1954) and Contemporary Concepts (1955). Naturally, the opportunity to arrange for the Basie band in 1976 was a full-circle moment for Bill.
Yesterday I spoke to Bill Holman about his arrangements for Basie's I Told You So:JazzWax: What do you think of the album 26 years later?
Bill Holman: I like it, but I don’t think most people have heard it. It’s an obscure Basie album. I was trying to get into the Basie sound but I was so far into my own thing at the time I don’t think I got all the way there. But it was an interesting assignment.
JW: Who called you to write the arrangements?
BH: Norman Granz, who owned Pablo. Norman just said, “I want you to write 10 arrangements for a Basie album, and we’ll record it in early January.” All of the charts were written in a couple of months.
JW: Did you have specific band members in mind when writing?
BH: Yes. On Tree Frog, I wrote a feature for trombonist Al Grey [pictured], who likes to use the plunger. I had the other trombones riff on a line that Grey had played back in 1954. When Al heard the trombones, he said, “Hey, that’s mine.” I also wrote Plain Brown Wrapper with tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest in mind.
JW: Were you happy with the results?
BH: For the most part. Ideally, the band should have had those charts out on the road for a few months before recording them. The Basie orchestra was never a sight-reading band and they had just come off a Christmas holiday break. The band also had two new trumpet players. So there was a lot working against the flow.
JW: What did you think conducting a band you had idolized since you were a kid?
BH: I was kind of awe-struck. Here I am in front of the Basie band for the first time. It kind of woke me up [laughs].
JW: Any bumps along the way?
BH: I did have trouble getting Norman to make a few takes on each tune. After the first take, Norman would say, "That’s great. Let’s go on to the next one.” I finally said,” Norman, hold it. We can improve on these.”
JW: What happened?
BH: Norman gave in, and I got a few takes on each piece.
JW: How was the Basie band different from bands you were conducting on the West Coast?
BH: In a local Los Angeles band like mine, the guys are concentrating on the reading and on executing the charts. Basie’s band was more interested in that fantastic sound. As a result, they weren’t used to sight-reading new charts. Virtually everything they played had been in their book for years. Of course, Los Angeles is a studio culture to begin with, so guys there are into execution, reading, intonation and things like that. None of this is about being better. It's just a different approach.
JW: Were you trying to move the Basie band out of its sound and into precision?
BH: No, no, not at all. I wasn’t trying to pull them away from anything. I was just trying to get a decent performance out of the band. By and large, the session came off OK. But the record is sloppy in intonation. The feeling is there, though.
JW: Did the band struggle with the material?
BH: Yes, they had a tough time with most of the charts. All seemed very logical to me, but for many of the guys, it was the first time they had seen any of my writing. So the charts were a little strange for them.
BH: Plain Brown Wrapper was particularly difficult for the band and caused them to bog down at one point. Basie sensed this. He stopped the band and gave them a lecture.
JW: What did he say?
BH: He said, “This guy has written a masterpiece and it’s up to us to execute it.” That helped. Basie knew how to speak to his band with authority. I was trying to get them in that direction but I didn’t know the right words.
JW: Was it scary conducting that band?
BH: Terrifying in a way, but I could see that the band was on my side. The Basie band I had fallen in love with in the 1940s was a different animal, of course, with Lester Young and Jo Jones in there. But in 1954, when Stan Kenton sent me to New York for a couple of months to write What’s New and I’ve Got You Under My Skin, I often caught Basie at Birdland. So the new Basie sound was a big influence as well. [Photo of Bill Holman by Mark Sheldon]
JW: One of your songs is called Told You So—yet the album is called I Told You So. How did that happen?
BH: Norman and I had a little argument over the song title. My song is Told You So. Norman called me up and said, “You know, the phrase is ‘I told you so.’ ” I said, “Well yeah, Norman, but this is conversational. The 'I' gets in the way.” He wasn’t buying it. When the album came out, he had called it I Told You So and my song remained Told You So.
JW: Something to Live For is a knockout, with that swirling Early Autumn pick-up intro.
BH: I like that, too. I put that song in there even though it was by Billy Strayhorn and in Duke Ellington’s book.
JW: What are your favorites on the album?
BH: Probably Ticker and Swea’ Pea. Tree Frog, too. All have a great tempo and swing.
JW: Was Basie a strong leader in the studio?
BH: He was. Basie got the big picture. He knew how to run that band and make it an extension of himself.
JW: Anything you learned about Basie that most people don’t realize?
BH: That Basie can talk [laughs]. Basie is usually thought of as a silent man who sits quietly on the bandstand. He just does something with his fingers or plays some notes and the band knows exactly what to play and how to play it. But when needed, Basie can indeed talk.
JW: What did he say?
BH: He spent time urging the band to try harder with unfamiliar material. He could hear and read what I was shooting for in the charts. Admittedly, some of the phrasing was a little odd for them. But he told them to buckle down and it worked.
JW: What did Basie ultimately think of the record?
BH: I spoke to Basie a few weeks after the session. He loved it and was very enthusiastic about doing another one. But sadly he got sick soon afterward and we never had a chance.
JazzWax tracks: Bill Holman is a modest genius. Count Basie's I Told You So is a rip-roaring album with stunning arrangements that constantly twist and turn. And don't let Bill's modesty fool you. His charts for the Basie band make hairs stand on end. The album is available as a download at iTunes or here. Sample Bill's writing on Something to Live For and The Git.
A special JazzWax thanks to David Langner.
JazzWax clip: Here's the Chicago Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra playing Bill Holman's Basie-influenced chart of Stompin' at the Savoy, which Bill arranged originally for Stan Kenton's Contemporary Concepts in 1955...