“It is a debut in the sense that it is her first official offering under her name,” writes CD annotator Tarabu Betserai Kirkland, “but given her long and extensive career as a jazz vocalist, improviser, composer, ensemble director, arranger, and educator, Permission is more of a continuum than a prologue.”
Permission combines classic songs by Chick Corea (“Sea Journey”), Joe Zawinul (“Go There Now” aka “74 Miles Away”), Charles Mingus (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” with Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s lyrics), Mongo Santamaria (“Afro Blue”), and Thelonious Monk (“Straight No Chaser”) with six original compositions, some sporting her richly poetic lyrics. Holm’s “The Bear” is a gorgeously harmonized a cappella piece performed by ten Bay Area singers, including Linda Tillery, Rhiannon, Raz Kennedy, and Nicolas Bearde, and was inspired by her former Mills instructors Pandit Pran Nath and Terry Riley. On the disc’s opener, “Improvised Raga,” Holm sings non-word syllables in the Kirana tradition of North Indian raga derived from Pran Nath, one of her major mentors.
“Instead of waking from a dream, I feel like a dream has awakened me!” says Holm. “I’ve had such wonderful opportunities throughout my performance career—working with, and learning from, diverse and highly-acclaimed artists who know how to push the envelope. And now, to finally bring together my own musical ideas into a single recording, I have to say it does my soul good.”
Besides members of Holm’s own band—pianist (and CD producer/arranger) Frank Martin, bassist Jeff Chambers, drummer Deszon Claiborne, and trombonist Wayne Wallace—the participants include drummer Famoudou Don Moye, soprano and tenor saxophonist Larry Schneider, vocal percussionist Antonia Minnecola, pianist Bill Bell, bassist Mark van Wageningen, percussionist David Frazier, the late drummers Paul van Wageningen and Eddie Marshall, and some of the key singers who, like Molly, sang in the original Voicestra. All, with the exception of Art Ensemble of Chicago member Moye, are based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Born in Salem, Oregon in 1954, Molly Holm grew up hearing Mingus, Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan around the house and impromptu singing with her jazz-fan mother and four siblings. Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro were important early vocal influences. “In high school,” Holm recalls, “I learned to sing by listening to them. I didn’t take voice lessons till I was 23.”
Holm moved to the Bay Area at 18 to study at Mills, but followed a circuitous path of singing and study elsewhere before returning to complete her bachelor’s degree in 1979 and a master’s in composition in 1982. Her classes at Mills with Pandit Pran Nath, Terry Riley, and W.A. Mathieu had a lasting impact on her own music.
“One of the most important things I learned from Terry is that he’s not afraid to just try anything,” says Holm. “He doesn’t seem to have any self-consciousness if he makes a mistake. I try to emulate that freedom, that lack of worry about making mistakes.”
Bobby McFerrin first encountered Holm when she was directing a 14-member choir called Jazzmouth. He tapped her to run the yearlong auditions for an a cappella vocal ensemble he was putting together, and in 1986 she was one of ten singers handpicked to join him in that innovative new vocal orchestra, Voicestra.
“Bobby came up with the idea to use a group of singers by leading the improvising himself,” she says. “He’d do the improvising and give the singers a repetitive part—circle singing or what we used to call ‘add a part, change a part.’ It was a huge thing to learn from him.”
Holm subsequently used these lessons in various singing groups she’s led, including her new women’s group, Molly Holm and The Impermanent Ensemble; in classes she’s taught at Folsom Prison, the California Medical Facility in Vacaville; and for the past 14 years as an adjunct faculty member at Mills.
In addition to her work with ensemble singing, Holm has self-produced concerts as a solo vocalist with rhythm-section support in years past, one of which led writer Fred Setterberg to describe her voice as “a fluid, birdsong alto, winding and lilting, with barely a hint of vibrato; a voice like the woody middle register of a clarinet.” Her new CD gives her, well, permission to explore more deeply this aspect of her music.
Molly Holm will be performing a CD release show with her band (Frank Martin, Jeff Chambers, Deszon Claiborne, Wayne Wallace, Melecio Magdaluyo, Antonia Minnecola) on Sunday 4/21 at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley.