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November 26, 2014

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Clint Holmes sweeps through L.A.: The man is not done yet

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John Katsilometes

Clint Holmes, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Gregg Field discuss plans for an upcoming album in Studio A, aka the “Grammy Studio,” at Capitol Records on Thursday, July 10, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Clint Holmes at Capitol Records

Clint Holmes and members of the Count Basie Orchestra record an upcoming album in Studio A, aka the “Grammy Studio,” at Capitol Records on Thursday, July 10, 2014, in Los Angeles.
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Clint Holmes ‘To Ella With Love’ at the Hollywood Bowl

Clint Holmes and friends rehearse for “To Ella With Love” at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, July 9, 2014, in Los Angeles.

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Clint Holmes and members of the Count Basie Orchestra record an upcoming album in Studio A, aka the “Grammy Studio,” at Capitol Records on Thursday, July 10, 2014, in Los Angeles.

In a serendipitous quirk of scheduling, Las Vegas headliners Frankie Moreno of the Stratosphere and Clint Holmes of Cabaret Jazz at the Smith Center performed on consecutive nights last week at the Hollywood Bowl.

Moreno joined violin virtuoso Joshua Bell for “Joshua Bell & Friends” on July 8, and Holmes appeared in the “To Ella With Love” performance July 9 as part of the “Jazz at the Bowl” series.

We tracked their experiences in Los Angeles as Moreno and Holmes were appearing at the Hollywood Bowl for the first time. This is the second of two parts.

LOS ANGELES — Clint Holmes is one who enjoys a good late-night hang. He’s found it again, or rather, it has found him, in the lounge at Loews Hollywood Hotel.

The longtime Las Vegas headliner has settled into a cushy leather chair framed fancily by mirrored silver armrests. The lights from high above seem to shine on him in a Disney sort of way. He is smiling as he talks, bobbing his head, clapping his hands as if still performing.

Seated around Holmes are his wife, Kelly, and Smith Center for the Performing Arts President Myron Martin, a friend of Holmes’ for more than two decades who has made this two-day trip the place Herb Caen once called “El Lay.”

It’s creeping toward 2 a.m., but Holmes is not nearly ready for a slumber.

“This is one of the great nights I have had in my career,” Holmes says beaming with the exuberance of a teenager. “Wow. What a night.”

As he talks, a soaring sound suddenly emanates from a nearby table. It is a young man singing an opera piece. Out of nowhere. He is not a hired vocalist. A joke from around the table is he might be singing to pay his bar tab, which (judging by this random bit of caterwauling) is likely to be pretty extensive.

Holmes stops to listen, as does everyone.

“You know, he’s not bad,” he says. It is suggested that this guy might be recruited for Holmes’ upcoming duets-themed shows at the Smith Center. “Maybe. I actually haven’t had time to make any calls on that.”

Soon, inevitably, the young man is asked if he is a hotel guest, which he is not. He offers to sing again, a different song, but instead is asked to take his talents elsewhere and is led out of the hotel.

Sadly, this volunteer opera singer had no idea that the person sitting just a few feet away was himself a trained singer — in opera, jazz and other mediums. He didn’t know, and wouldn’t know, that person was Clint Holmes, who had just sung before an audience of 12,000 at the Hollywood Bowl.

•••

The performance is “To Ella With Love,” a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald as part of the “Jazz at the Bowl” series. Holmes is invited, as he is very much a jazz singer these days, his continuing evolution as a singer having branched to that genre from his standards-driven period as a headliner at Harrah’s a decade ago.

That continued drive to grow as an artist has lifted Holmes to critical acclaim in New York, where he has become a hot ticket at Cafe Carlyle, and to the Hollywood Bowl.

“Wherever you are, you have to connect to an audience,” Holmes says. “It’s something you have to learn to do if you want to survive in this business, whether you’re at the Smith Center, in New York or a place like the Hollywood Bowl.”

The first moment Holmes strides out to perform at that famed venue is not at night before thousands of fans, but during that day’s rehearsal in the heavy heat of an L.A. summer afternoon.

He stops as he nears the center of the stage and looks out at the sea of 17,000 seats that cascade down to the performers’ feet. Holmes is used to performing at the 260-seat Cabaret Jazz room at Smith Center, which has its own charms.

But as jazz great Dee Dee Bridgewater, one of Holmes’ duet partners for this rehearsal, says, “This is the Carnegie Hall of the West. That’s the best way to describe it.”

Taking their seats behind Holmes is the Count Basie Orchestra, just a year short of celebrating its 80th anniversary and so crucial to Holmes’ career. The band is to back Holmes the following day during his recording session at Capitol Records’ Studio A.

Taking position behind the drum set is one of the industry’s real heavyweights, Gregg Field, who is not only a topnotch musician but also one of the great producers in contemporary music. He is charged with spinning magic out of Holmes’ great voice and the musicians in that famed band.

This is a full 90-minute run-through featuring the performance’s three star performers: Bridgewater, Holmes and Patti Austin. This rehearsal is a full accounting of the program and at least as vocally demanding as the show to be performed later that night.

Clint Holmes at ‘Georgia on My Mind’ Tribute

Clint Holmes with Kirk Whalum on sax in “Georgia on My Mind: A Tribute to Ray Charles” on Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, at Reynolds Hall in the Smith Center. Launch slideshow »
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Clint Holmes and friends rehearse for “To Ella With Love” at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, July 9, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Holmes has a generous time allotment for someone making his debut at the Hollywood Bowl: Four songs, including a solo rendition of “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” He is to duet with Bridgewater on “There’s a Boat That’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” from “Porgy & Bess.”

Watching Holmes and Bridgewater pour their souls into the song is to be reminded that the movement and delivery of a jazz artist is not something to choreograph. They move in tandem, naturally, swaying and leaning to each other as they sing — and speak — the lyrics. It is a hot moment, beyond the outdoor temperature, as they become caught up in the song’s impassioned back-and-forth.

“Dee Dee, are you there yet?!” Holmes fairly shouts. “Oh, I am there, baby, all the way!” is Bridgewater’s heated reply. They later laugh, as Holmes concedes, “I think we got a little carried away there.” This is where Holmes is fortunate that his wife, Kelly Clinton Holmes, has an acute sense of humor.

Outside Holmes’ earshot, in one of the Hollywood Bowl’s dressing rooms, Bridgewater says, “Clint and I are kindred spirits. To sing like we do, it’s not just about singing. It’s about inhabiting a song, really feeling it through your whole body. There are a lot of singers out there, but not many can interpret the song the way Clint can.”

•••

Most ticketholders to shows at the Hollywood Bowl don’t just see a show. Most pack picnic baskets and fold out the tables built into the boxes in the terrace seating sections closest to the stage. It is literally a wine-and-cheese scene, and occasionally you hear the tumbling and rolling of a dropped bottle as folks set up these snack stations.

The venue is built for any music, with its coned stage facing the theater in such a way that every intended nuance from the stage is felt in the audience. The night starts with a set by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, the recognizable CH Orchestra logo on the bandstand facing the crowd. It’s either music to be listened to exclusively or happy background noise for those chatting and noshing.

Holmes appears after intermission 30 minutes into the program (and that’s one following a set by Bridgewater that ends with her stirring take on “Mack the Knife.”) Her introduction of Holmes is unscripted and heartfelt, as she says, “To me he is Mr. Las Vegas,” which Holmes takes, of course, as an unofficial and complimentary title.

As Holmes walks out, this time for real, the waves of applause nearly stop him. The best way to describe how he looks on the stage is he looks like he belongs there, smiling and hugging Bridgewater before wading into “There’s a Boat” with the sort of passion that makes you feel he is singing the song for the first time, ever, and not the second time that day.

Holmes glides through “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” his voice filling the sky as the sun has completed its descent. The big screens flanking the stage show his face, tight with emotion and bright with sweat. He then departs, but not for long, returning with Austin after her three-song solo set. The two ping pong the lyrics of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” one of Fitzgerald’s famous numbers (a duet with Louis Armstrong). The voices seem about to collide in the fast-paced duet, but the singers hold it all together.

“I was following her, or she was following me,” Holmes says later. “I don’t know who was doing the following.”

Austin and Bridgewater are well aware of Holmes’ innate ability to scat, and that’s how the show ends, with an all-star “scat-off,” the crowd cheering louder with every turn.

“Lemme tell ya,” Bridgewater says, “Clint Holmes can scat his butt off. He’s one of the best I’ve seen.”

As Holmes leaves the stage, he slows and looks skyward. Maybe he is thanking someone. Or maybe he is simply basking in the moment.

•••

Holmes has sung — and talked — nearly nonstop almost from the moment he has arrived in L.A., but the most important vocal work is to be performed at Capitol Records. He has spoken energetically of recording in Studio A, where his duet partners have already included the likes of jazz great Jane Monheit as he records a CD due for release by November.

Clint Holmes

Clint Holmes performs at Cabaret Jazz in the Boman Pavilion at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, May 4, 2012. Launch slideshow »
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Singer Clint Holmes and his wife Kelly Clinton Holmes arrive for "The Showbiz Roast" of former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman at the Stratosphere Theater Tuesday, July 23, 2013.

The release is yet untitled, but it is obvious Holmes’ is going for broke on this effort. “This is the Grammy studio,” Holmes reminds as he walks past framed black-and-whites of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Beach Boys and Nat King Cole recording in that very studio.

The room is filled with musicians and stray instruments — watch out for that sax! — of the Basie band. Though this is a place to be heard and not (necessarily) seen, Studio A is pristinely presented, appearing as clean as it sounds. The effects are polished wood and glass, with the Capitol Records logo inlaid in the glass panes separating the vocal studio from the main recording space.

The musicians backing Holmes are among the best in the business, but they are not so jaded as to be blithe of their environment. Bandleader and trumpet master Scotty Barnhart grips a camera when not wielding his instrument. At one point, piano great Shelly Berg finds himself the focus of three cameras and jokes, “Let me out! I will rampage around the studio if I am let out!”

In the center of the big room is the podium and overhanging microphone used by so many greats. It’s where the photo of Sinatra was taken as he wore his fedora and sang “Come Fly With Me.”

Holmes is to record with Bridgewater, again in the “There’s a Boat” duet. He sings his side of the song repeatedly, and perfectly. Bridgewater joins and records her lyrics in the enclosed studio, with Holmes standing just outside the glass and filling in his part to give the song a natural feel. The two soon take to the spot in the middle of the room, singing into that single microphone and carried by the full force of the Basie orchestra.

From the control room, Field looks through the glass and into the studio, as this is a full, live recorded performance.

Field is staring at the singers and says of Holmes, “Is he having a good time or what?” Holmes and Bridgewater are again moving with the music, dancing in a way that is fit for a staged performance but wholly natural.

At the end of song, the room bursts into applause.

Field pushes his chair from the control board and its gazillion colored knobs and levers and says, “We’re calling it a day — and a great one at that.”

•••

Days later, Holmes is still taking in the experience. This was a sprint, a creative hit-and-run, but the memories linger. Holmes’ career is laden with achievements and awards — from his Top Five single “Playground in My Mind” in 1973 to his days opening for Bill Cosby, the hit autobiographical musical “Comfortable Shoes” to his sidekick work with Joan Rivers in the early days of Fox (Holmes’ voice was the first ever heard on the network).

And that all happened before he began his headlining run in Las Vegas 15 years ago. But this night at the Hollywood Bowl and these days recording and singing in L.A. were something special.

“I think that I was just trying to step out of myself and enjoy what was happening,” he says. “I think, even at this point in my career, there is always more to experience and more to learn. When you are given these opportunities to do these special things, you appreciate them more when you’re older.”

Astonishingly, Holmes is 68, yet it can be argued that his career apex is still ahead. He is recording an album full of promise and talent, being created in one of the most famous studios in the world.

He is fronting a production show on the Strip, the tribute to Ray Charles titled “Georgia on My Mind,” from Sept. 18-Oct. 29 at the Venetian. He rules the roost at Cabaret Jazz and has been the toast of New York for the past two years for his shows at Cafe Carlyle.

He is asked about the moment he left the stage at the Hollywood Bowl. The last song sung was “How High the Moon,” and Holmes noticed something in the sky as he finished his performance.

“I looked up at the moon, and it was almost a full moon, and I could see it through the clouds and I just felt this huge sensation of the place,” he says. “I was like, ‘Look at where we are!’ It felt more like the beginning than the end. I get chills thinking about it, even now.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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