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.