Jenny Holland sounds almost surprised about Sunday afternoon’s concert at the Back Room. Celebrating the release of her first album under her own name, Secret World, she’s walked a long, winding path to arrive at this moment. In finding her voice as a singer/songwriter she’s crafted a beautiful set of tunes featuring some of the East Bay’s most celebrated musicians.
“I never thought I had to be a performing musician,” she says from her home in Albany, where she’s long maintained a bustling music studio teaching numerous students. “I’m a homebody. For years I would give an annual house concert on my birthday, and that was it.”
At the Back Room, she’ll be joined by many of her Secret World collaborators, including Berkeley bassist Kai Eckhardt, drummer and El Cerrito High alum Deszon Claiborne, Jazz Mafia and Electric Squeezebox Orchestra guitarist Jon Monahan, Oakland violinist Kaila Flexer, Berkeley saxophonist George Brooks, Oakland saxophonist Larry Schneider, and Albany saxophonist/keyboardist Isaac Narell.
“I’m a rock ‘n’ roll/pop songwriter who got mashed up with all this jazz and world music,” Holland says. “Aimee Mann is my favorite current songwriter. I love her arrangement style.”
She wasn’t planning on assembling such a powerhouse cast, but after writing a set of songs in 2016 she started working with Myles Boisen at Guerrilla studio in Oakland. Drawing on her extensive network of talent, the project is something of a family affair. Isaac Narell is her son, and Larry Schneider is Narell’s father in law. While the saxophonist has lived in the East Bay for decades, he rarely performs at home, and this is a rare chance to catch a world class improviser whose credits include Horace Silver, Billy Cobham, and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra.
“When Isaac married Larry’s daughter Ali we started playing together a lot informally,” Holland says. “My daughter did all the cover art for the album. And George Brooks and his wife Emily are two of my two best friends. Emily said, you have to do a release party.”
Born and raised in New Jersey, Holland moved to Berkeley in 1974 and earned an MA in education at Cal. She studied for several years with innovative drummer George Marsh, who was playing in the jazz fusion band Listen with Andy Narell. He was starting to build his reputation as the greatest steel pan player outside Trinidad and Tobago, and when they married and started a family “he had this career, and I was not reluctant to put any ambition behind me,” she says. “I was really into being a parent and teacher. It’s enough in any family to have one person who’s on the road all the time.”
Rather than performing, she poured her creative energy into teaching. She joined the faculty at Cazadero Music Camp after an insurrection changed the organization’s focus from European classical to international music. It was the late 1970s, and she watched a rising generation of Berkeley musicians come through the camp, including Benny Green, Craig Handy, Paul Hanson, Jessica and Tony Jones, and a young Joshua Shedroff (the future Joshua Redman). She went on to teach at the Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco and Walden Center & School in Berkeley.
When her marriage with Narell broke up after 25 years, she threw herself into new musical pursuits. Taking classes at the Jazzschool when it first opened over La Note Café, she studied with pianist/composer Marcos Silva, deepening a passion for Brazilian music that dated back to the 1970s. She made a four-song EP, Pelo Mar, with drummer Phil Thompson, a player who’s toured and recorded with Brazilian masters like Airto and Jovino Santos Neto.
But she really started performing when became the music director for the theatrical company Ragged Wing Ensemble, “putting on these rambling site-specific shows in Live Oak and Codornices Park,” she says. “We did these Halloween shows about death and I really enjoyed it. But theater is a time sponge.”
Looking to focus more on songwriting, she spun off a new band with Tamara Roberts, The Crane and the Crow, which started with more than a dozen musicians but eventually slimmed down to an octet that recorded the 2014 album Prairie. More than a generation older than most of her bandmates, Holland wasn’t surprised or dismayed when the band fell apart.
“They were young, having kids, going to grad school,” she says. “We made the record to wrap it up. It was a great vibe, the best breakup I’ve ever had. Everyone wrote and sang and played. I decided I really liked recording.”
The songs on Secret World were all written after The Crane and the Crow, and in some ways her new pieces were conceived in reaction to that band’s sprawling material. Rather than writing tunes for jamming, she distilled her melodies into tightly constructed songs.
“I’d play them for Tamara Roberts, my Crane and Crow co-leader, and she’d say take that out,” Holland says. “I wanted no wasted space, no wasted words.”
Recommended gig: ‘Musical Action for Planned Parenthood’
While Jenny Holland is performing at the Back Room, the label and anti-Trumpian initiative Minus Zero presents “Musical Action for Planned Parenthood” at the Ivy Room on Sunday, from 4:20 p.m. to 10 p.m. Billed as a benefit concert for “A New Year of Resistance,” the event features a series of improvisational duo encounters, pairing saxophonists Hafez Modirzadeh and Prasant Radhakrishnan, cellist Crystal Pascucci and drummer Scott Amendola, saxophonist Francis Wong and dancer Lenora Lee, and Duo B (bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and drummer Jason Levis). Also on the bill is violist Dina Maccabee, who founded Minus Zero with drummer Vijay Anderson, and trio with Anderson, saxophonist Sheldon Brown and clarinetist Ben Goldberg.