Photo: Irene Young
Molly Holm performs at Freight & Salvage on Sunday, Apr. 21, to mark her debut CD. Photo: Irene Young

Molly Holm has lived a lifetime in between starting to record her debut CD Permission and its release last February. The Berkeley jazz singer, an esteemed educator and important collaborator with Bobby McFerrin and Terry Riley, lost both her parents, ended a relationship, and married her husband in the decade or so it took to bring the project to fruition.

Concerts marking the release of a CD are often billed as celebrations, but in Holm’s case Sunday’s performance at Freight & Salvage is almost a liberation. She’s performing with a superlative cast distilled from her collaborators on the album, including pianist/producer Frank Martin, bass master Jeff Chambers, drummer Deszon Claiborne, Antonio Minnecola on Hindustani vocal percussion, trombonist Wayne Wallace, and reed expert Melecio Magdaluyo. 

“I can’t tell you how I got over a hump, but something shifted and I was determined to get this out,” says Holm from her house in North Berkeley. “Getting some stability back in my life and being in a healthy relationship made it possible. But it’s an expensive proposition. We did by hook or by crook.”

Considering her vast and varied experience, Holm is way overdue for her first album. Over the years she’s toured extensively with McFerrin’s Voicestra, recorded with Berkeley tenor saxophonist George Brooks, and composed music for several Shotgun Players productions.

A disparate collection of tunes connected by Holm’s lithe, lustrous sound and chance-taking sensibility, Permission opens with a duet featuring fretless bassist Mark van Wageningen, an improvised raga that’s a tribute to one of her key mentors, Pandit Pran Nath. In another duo she delivers a sultry version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” with veteran East Bay pianist Bill Bell.

Exploring classic jazz compositions by modern jazz pioneers Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk, Holm displays the rhythmic dexterity and harmonic sophistication of a post-bop horn player. But she also offers her own songs, offering an emotionally expansive journey on the title track (a song artfully punctuated by Minnecola) and an a cappella tour de force “The Bear,” an original piece McFerrin incorporated into the Voicestra book.

“Molly’s interests are so varied,” says Frank Martin, who produced the album and contributed most of the arrangements. “The album really represents what she’s about. It really wasn’t a stretch to pull it all together.”

An essential force in the background of the Bay Area music scene, Martin has performed with a vast array of jazz heavyweights, including Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Dizzy Gillespie, and Joe Farrell, though as a key collaborator with the legendary producer Narada Michael Waldon he’s also recorded with everyone from Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, and Ray Charles to Elton John, Sheryl Crow, James Taylor and Madonna. He’s produced dozens of albums by Bay Area musicians, and relishes the opportunity to work with a real improviser.

Holm: “vast and varied experience”. Photo: Irene Young
Holm: “vast and varied experience”. Photo: Irene Young

“Molly is truly a jazz singer in that she’s open to going anywhere,” Martin says. “It’s definitely a joy to work with somebody who’s fearless. We went into the studio on many occasions not having a clue what we were going to do, and that was the most fun.”

In many ways Sunday’s concert reflects the extensive artistic community that has shaped Holm’s music. She’s invited several friends to drop by and sit in, like pianist Bell and bassist van Wageningen. And as a special present to herself she’s engaged the magisterial Linda Tillery, with whom she worked extensively in Voicestra, to perform the old Texas prison song “Ain’t No More Cane on The Brazos.”

“When Linda sings you can hear African-American history, the whole diaspora coming through her voice,” Holm says. “She’s my favorite singer on this planet.”

Born in Salem, Oregon, Holm grew up in a highly musical family, soaking up the jazz her mother played on the stereo. She studied piano for 10 years, and sang at home with her family and in church choir. Holm moved down to the Bay Area in 1972 to attend Mills College, but ended up taking a circuitous seven-year route to her Bachelor’s degree. She eventually earned an MA in composition from Mills, where she studied with W.A. Mathieu and forged a close creative relationship with Terry Riley.

She was leading the 14-piece vocal ensemble Jazz Mouth when Bobby McFerrin recruited her to help launch Voicestra, running the auditions and eventually joining the ensemble when it premiered in 1986. She continues to use many of the circle singing techniques that McFerrin honed during her classes at Mills, where she’s taught since 2000.

In building the confidence to release her own album, Holm cites her experience collaborating with Marcus Gardley at Shotgun Players as a key development. She contributed three chants to “Love Is A Dream House in Lorin,” and several years later returned to the theater to compose all the music for “This World In A Woman Hands.”

“That was a big step,” Holm says. “I’ve got a masters in composition, but it’s very different to be on someone else’s time schedule. They understood how I worked, so while Marcus was doing the play, they did a year and a half of workshops to train the cast in jazz. That was a big building block in my personal/musical persona. I wasn’t working for McFerrin or Terry Riley anymore.”

Don’t miss

Ashkenaz responds to the horrific shooting the injured two employees and marred the Berkeley institution’s 40th anniversary celebration with a concert Friday billed as “Imagining Nonviolence: Healing From Violence,” featuring the powerhouse Santa Cruz Afro-Brazilian ensemble SambaDa, the Cosmos Percussion Orchestra, and nonviolence workshops.

Pianist Burton Greene, an overlooked figure from the wild and wooly free jazz movement of the early 1960s, performs two solo recitals Wednesday night, Apr. 24, at the Berkeley Arts Festival space at 2133 University Avenue. A productive member of the avant garde who collaborated with many of the era’s most eloquent improvisers, he’s been based in Amsterdam since 1970. Over the past two decades, he’s immersed himself in klezmer music, launching a series of bands such as Klezmokum, Klez-thetics, and more recently Klez-Edge, which released the album Ancestors, Mindreles, NaGila Monsters on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....