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Benny Hollman Orchestra

Big Band

Wed, Aug 18

The award-winning Benny Hollman Big Band Explosion has been a three-time recipient of the prestigious San Diego Music Awards.

Sound Observations From Benny Hollman

by David Moye

Unless you watch KPBS during their pledge drives or watch Turner Classic Movies, it’s hard for a person 45 and under to fully understand just how big the Big Bands were.

Not just in size, but in popularity. Not only would a bandleader be a big star to fans, but the fans also were familiar with the horn players, the bass players and even the arrangers! Whoda thunk?

The impact of the big bands still resonates with musicians like San Diego’s own Benny Hollman, who is keeping the sound that only a big band can provide alive with his own Benny Orchestra, which plays August 18 at Anthology.

Hollman has kept his band going through nearly 4 decades of musical fads and, in the process, has won the San Diego Music Awards three times, been the official big band for the San Diego Chargers and even backing artists like the Temptations, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Johnny Mathis, Bob Hope, Clay Aiken, the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson.

Oh, and he also had the pleasure to work with San Diego’s own Frankie Laine, a pioneering vocalist who showed folks years before Elvis Presley that a white singer could have a black sound.

Hollman keeps fighting the good fight for the big bands because, he admits, there is a certain sound that only comes when the instrumentation of a big band.

“The arrangements make the difference,” he says. “We have five saxes, four trombones and three trumpets along with the rhythm section and it gets you in the gut. Some people like driving a sports car, but I think a big band like this is like a Lincoln Town Car. It just feels right.”

Although Hollman can get a similar effect with 11 players instead of 15, it’s probably like driving a four cylinder instead of a V-8.

Admittedly, it costs more to run a big band than, say, a trio, but, like we said, there is something to a big band that can’t compare.

“We do it for the sound,” Hollman said. “It’s a labor of love. All the guys in the band love the harmonies, textures and dynamics. It’s like driving a 4-wheeler in the mountains, it just feels right.”

The big bands as a viable commercial unit started fading in the 1950s, and, since then, many bands that are attempting to keep the music alive do so by embalming themselves in soundalike arrangements that try and duplicate the original recordings down to the last sixteenth note.

That’s not Hollman’s style.

“We don’t take it off the records,” he said. “Most of the bands that do, say, Glenn Miller, play the original arrangements. We take the songs and add our own twist on them.”

As an example, he points to the Orchestra’s new arrangement of “If I Only Had A Brain” from “The Wizard Of Oz.”

“We have three guys including me doing arrangements,” Hollman said. “Dwight Stone cam up with the idea of taking that song and turning it into a latin jazz number. It’s not just the way he re-did the melody, but he gave it a new rhythmic pulse.”
we’re doing ‘Nightengale Sang In Berkeley Square.’ Now, that’s a classic song from the Great American Songbook, but we do it our own way. Also, we do ‘Stomping At The Savoy’ by Duke Ellington, we do it as a jazzy swing way.”

Wait a second! Isn’t swing just a sub-genre of jazz, Mr. Hollman?

“Swing was for dancing, the jazz was the improvisation,” he explained.

Got it.

The advantage of having a big band in the 21st century is that many of the fans have learned to aurally accept the innovations of the musicians that came after the big band players.

Guys like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker showed musicians how to play “outside” the traditional scales and create new melodies on top of traditional chord patterns. Since modern audiences have grown up with this part of their vocabulary, musicians like Hollman can improvise more extensively than the original big band performers.

“It’s like this: You go to a museum and you can see pretty landscapes or you can go see the Picasso and they move your brain,” he said.

Thankfully, Hollman manages to do both.

“We always use Benny Hollman’s band every time we perform in San Diego.”—The Temptations

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