Jim Holman turned 24 a couple months ago, but he’s saved the real celebration for tonight.
Holman, a Chicago pianist of considerable promise, will lead his trio – augmented by the firebreathing saxophonist Frank Catalano – in a CD-release party marking Explosion!, his debut album, released earlier this year on Delmark Records.
Tonight’s sets, at 8 and 10, take place at the storied Jazz Showcase (806 S. Plymouth), which is nearly three times as old as the pianist himself. But for Holman, there’s nothing new about being the youngster in the crowd. He got his first taste of jazz from his father, pianist Scott Earl Holman; who brought his son’s music to the attention of his buddy Ira Sullivan, the legendary Chicago-bred multi-instrumentalist. By then, Jim had plenty of experience sitting in with noted elders in Pittsburgh, where he attended college; as Explosion! clearly proves, he has no trouble relating to his elders.
I can safely presume to have spent more time listening to the album than pretty much any consumer, most of which took place before the album even came out: I wrote the liner notes.
But sometimes, that’s not a blessing; sometimes, the more you listen, the more familiar (and tired) the music becomes. In this case, I’ve kept finding new wrinkles in the solos, and surprises in the phrasing – and that doesn’t usually happen on a debut disc from an unknown player.
A lot of this has to do with what Holman’s “rhythmic aggression,” the phrase he uses to describe his overriding fascination and facility with subdivisions of the beat. Without getting overly technical, this parsing of the pulse makes possible some neat aural illusions.
For instance, manipulation of the rhythm allows Holman to systematically shorten the length of the notes in a solo line — and, correspondingly, to squeeze more of them into the same space. This makes the solo seem to increase in tempo, even though the tempo hasn’t changed. (If you’ve ever heard the way Chicago’s ageless keyboard master Willie Pickens approaches the process of improvisation, that will give you a good point of reference.) The subsequent return to “normal” time then functions as a resolution of the accrued rhythmic tension.
This rhythmic roller-coaster is the main source of a conductive electricity coursing through Holman’s solos, and which many will target as the distinguishing characteristic of his music. “Rhythm is my primary focus,” he agrees. “I grew up focused on harmony, but now I’m understanding that it’s all rhythm.” Nonetheless, don’t for a moment assume that he has slacked off on the harmonic complexities of modern jazz, or the crystalline melodies that take flight from those harmonies. They’re in there, too.
Despite the fact that his dad plays piano – and has released several albums of his own – you won’t hear much of the father in the son; their styles are markedly different. Still, says Holman, “I know I got quite a substantial amount [of information] from him; that’s how I got the exposure to jazz and music altogether. He’s turned me on to lots of things, particularly about swing, and the [rhythmic] pocket, and things of that nature.
“And I’m sure if you put our playing back to back, you’d notice some philosophic similarities. I mean, we’ve been talking about music for so long, it would have to rub off. But I couldn’t point out something specific.”
Neither can I; in this case, the apple has fallen fairly far from the tree. And it contains the seeds of a powerful and inviting piano style that’s just begun to blossom.
Jim Holman will share the stage with bassist Brian Sandstrom and the veteran drummer Rusty Jones – both of whom appear on Explosion! – at the Showcase tonight, along with Holman’s contemporary, the young trumpeter Barrett Harmon. As I mentioned above, the album’s guest soloist – the protean saxist Frank Catalano, who himself hit the scene as a teenager about 20 years ago – will also be on hand.
And even though Father’s Day is a couple weeks off, I think you can expect at least one proud pop in the audience as well.