Over the last several decades, Holli Ross – jazz vocalist, music educator, and voice specialist – has been a vibrant force in the jazz world. Alongside her career as a member and co-founder of the celebrated vocal trio String Of Pearls (25 years and counting), Ross has garnered fans and praise as a swinging, intensely musical solo singer with a deep knowledge of the jazz tradition.
A native of Long Island, New York, Ross was fortunate to grow up in a musical household, and soon took it upon herself to pursue similar aspirations. "I was a concert brat and just adored seeing my bassoonist father perform in Carnegie Hall," says Holli. Musical theater also had a strong hold at home, so by the time Holli discovered jazz, much of the Great American Songbook repertoire was already firmly lodged in her brain. It just took the final puzzle piece of hearing Ella for the first time to jolt Ross into a lifelong journey through jazz. As far as she was concerned, "now 'that's' how it's supposed to be sung!"
Hand-picked at the age of 11 by her "cool" chorus teacher, Tony Taglino, Ross recorded a series of children's educational songs and quickly learned her way around the recording studio. Finding opportunities to sing never seemed too difficult for Holli, but her dad and mom (a classical guitarist) wisely steered her toward a serious musical education. So after spending some time at New England Conservatory, she earned her Bachelor's degree in bassoon performance from Mannes College of Music. Always looking to pursue jazz vocal studies – a field which did not formally exist at the time -- Ross asked if she could join an instrumental jazz class at Mannes run by pianist Jack Reilly. Not knowing exactly what to do with a singer, he agreed to let her join but warned her that he'd treat her like any other instrumentalist. That was fine with Ross, and before long she was swinging alongside the others scatting bop-heads. Later she came under the tutelage of saxophonist Warne Marsh, who also pushed her beyond the usual vocal requirements. Her initial studies of classical guitar quickly gravitated toward jazz as well.
Ross has made a name for herself as an ensemble singer, most notably with String Of Pearls, the female vocal trio (with Jeanne O'Connor and Sue Halloran) that started it all for her. The group has amassed two recordings abroad and two stateside. Holli's toolbox of musical skills served her well as this charming trio built its repertoire of vintage and contemporary jazz. She painstakingly transcribed many of the group's retro arrangements by the likes of the Boswell and Andrews Sisters. She also arranged some songs for the group, and became the primary conductor for the Pearls' backup rhythm section. Holli's unique vocal gifts make her an excellent jazz ensemble singer: a strong sense of rhythm and swing, a versatile voice that can move from joyous belting to hushed or lush tones, and an instinctive ability to blend with other voices – in tune!
As she was making her way around the New York jazz vocal scene, Ross came to the attention of jazz giant Jon Hendricks. He invited Holli to learn the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross material with an eye toward asking Holli to replace his daughter, Michelle, who was leaving the group. In the end the opportunity did not pan out, but Jon remained supportive and frequently called Ross up to the stage to join him for impromptu performances.
But Holli has moved beyond solo and ensemble singing to work as a lyricist, jazz educator and most recently a speech therapist specializing in voice disorders. Early on in her teaching career, she noted that it was not uncommon for a freshman voice student to appear in her studio with inherent vocal problems. Her problem was that she did not know how to treat an injured voice, let alone teach one. This prompted Ross to get her Masters in speech-language pathology. The big payback is when a voice patient becomes a voice student.
As a lyricist, Ross was strongly encouraged by the late Ray Passman to develop her natural ability to write witty and dexterous words to jazz compositions. Ray had heard Holli perform some self-penned vocalese (by now a well-known concept developed by Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure, and Jon Hendricks in which an instrumental solo is lyricized). Soon Ross began writing words to such jazz compositions as Miles' "Boplicity" and Roger Kellaway's "Step Right Up," as well as tunes by more contemporary composers: Harold Danko, Ivan Lins, Bill Mays, Roberto Menescal, and Mal Waldron, to name just a few. One of her favorite lyrics is set to a little-known Sarah Vaughan composition that was recently recorded by Janis Siegel and the Count Basie band under the direction of trombonist Dennis Wilson. Another idol, Mark Murphy, was inspired to record her Boplicity lyric, titled "Bebop Lives." It doesn't get much better than that! Along the way, Ross also developed a passion for Brazilian and Latin music; Afro-Cuban and Brazilian songs are now an indispensable part of her solo repertoire. A vote of confidence came from Brazilian trumpeter, Claudio Roditi who, after performing with Ross at one engagement, approached her to say he liked they way she sang bossa nova and did she perhaps write lyrics. Together they've written a half dozen songs, two of which you can hear on Ross' new solo recording (with Roditi as guest, of course).
Ross, reviewed as the "the voice of experience" by the late jazz critic, Stuart Troup, has shared the stage and studios with many jazz luminaries: Gene Bertoncini, Bill Charlap, Jon Faddis, Donald Johnston, Steve Kuhn, Wolfgang Lackerschmid, Romero Lumambo, Bill Mays, Jack MacDuff, Darmon Meader, Hendrik Meurkens, Bucky Pizzarelli, Randy Sandke, Rufus Reid, Claudio Roditi, Ted Rosenthal, Akira Tana, Dennis Wilson, and Matt Wilson. She has toured nationally and abroad with SOP in high-profile performances at the JVC Jazz Festival, the 92nd Street Y, Town Hall, and the Kennedy Center.
Listening to Ross, you get the distinct impression her homework's been done. Though Holli retains her unique and expressive sound, you can't help but hear the strong influence of some of her vocal heroes: Ella, Sarah, Carmen, Nancy, Anita, LHR…. Then of course she steps away from the singers and you can hear the horns, bass and drums. It's all there. Says Holli, "To be a singer is a special gift, because the voice reaches out to the most primal musical instincts in people. I don't just get to sing the beautiful melody, I get to tell the beautiful story….or sometimes, a story that ain't so pretty. My reward will always be the coming together of musical minds on the bandstand and the feeling that I am touching the heart of a listener."