Heather Masse's vocals are a rare blend of bell-like timbre and expression. She seems to be a natural alto, yet she can hit impossibly high notes as sweet and easy as a lick on a melting ice-cream cone. At eighty, consummate jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd is still a master at teasing subtle textures from his instrument, no mean feat for an instrument whose basic sound is generated by bilabial vibrations. The tunes are a combination of standards and originals with a strong sense of melody and sophisticated lyrics. The odd-couple sounds of their instruments are the playground for a giddy array of bluesy bent notes and jazzy phrasing and with just Rolf Sturm on guitar and Mark Helias on contra bass, there is plenty of open space to play. And play they do as "I'm Goin Sane (One Day at a Time)” starts with Heather scatting like a horn and Roswell trying to make his trombone use its words, before the song’s melody emerges triumphant and redemptive. “Mood Indigo” is brought to its most basic chord, with Masse's lead and Rudd's dark blue notes making you feel as if you have seen behind the curtain and found the wizard to be even grander than first imagined. The two-man rhythm section swings the heck out of “Blackstrap Molasses—That Old Devil Moon” as Rudd and Masse take it for a ride.
You can enjoy August Love Song a different way every time you play it. Pretty much, whatever song is on at the moment will be your new favorite. The cross-generational chemistry and sublime musicianship of this duo is a constant delight whether you are thrilling to a new interpretation of a standard, exploring one of their originals or just smiling at the unlikely, lovely sound they make together. —Michael Devlin
Vocalist/songwriter Heather Masse received her didactic training at the New England Conservatory of Music and her practicum on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. Her academy training was in jazz vocals, but her practical experience reflects more folk- flavored fare. Her previous recording, Bird Song (Red House, 2009), was a well- received collections of folk originals, solidifying Masse's folk bona fides established with the wildly popular Wailin' Jennys. Her voice is user friendly, neither over-practiced nor hyper-informed by her education. She is comfortable in her voice. It was inevitable that Masse would return to jazz in the studio, only a matter of time.
That said, only a most impeccable talent could have been tapped for Masse's jazz disc. Not some flashy pianist like the late Oscar Peterson nor an impressionistic player like Brad Mehldau; no, neither of those would do. What Masse's talent and vision requires is an equally informed and experienced musician who could bring a broad horizontal knowledge of jazz piano...and she found that in Dick Hyman. As a mainstay in the music for 60 years, Hyman is proficient in every jazz piano style and brings exactly the skills set necessary for a Heather Masse recording of standards.
From the outset, this recital is something out of the ordinary. First, Masse is liberal and permissive with her treatment of the material. However, that is not to say that she is reckless. Quite the opposite: Masse's superb training has enabled her to bring out the commonalities in music, from the doo wop in "Since I Fell For You" to the stride-blues extravaganza of "Our Love Is Here To Stay." Hyman easily falls into the groove and even guides Masse empathically through these songs, a coalescence of musical vision and sound.
Masse's voice is perfectly natural and fresh—lush and supple. She is neither married to the melody nor has the compulsion to show off vocal fireworks. She is relaxed as opium and honey, yet is as exacting as a mathematical equation. Her treatment of Kurt Weill's "September Song" and "Lost In The Stars" reveal Masse's soft touch for difficult material. It does the same for Hyman's playing, which is as impressionistic as it is expressionistic. Hyman can simply play anything...well. He gives Cole Porter's "Love For Sale" a barrel-house flavor with a walking left hand. His solo is all 1960s soul jazz crossed with James P. Johnson. Masse belts it out with a commanding sexuality and aplomb.
Lock My Heart is a beginning...a beginning of a survey Masse will be making expertly through the Great American Songbook. To think that this is all there will be from the jazzy Heather Masse is unacceptable.
At 85, jazz mainstay Dick Hyman, at once an enfante terrible and traditionalist, not to mention being a smooth jazz cat long before the wave hit, is a guy not all that easy to pin down. Though he's rightly lauded for many takes on the early jazz catalogues of Jellyroll Martin, Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, and others, not to mention film scoring, orchestral compositions, mucho session work, and issuing 100 LPs under his own name—geez, is there anything the guy doesn't do??—I'd like to point out a little-known fact: he's also the creator of one of the 20th century's landmark works, the singular Minotaur song off the equally unique Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman LP.
The claim goes that he was the first to ever record on a Moog synthesizer in 1969, but that's not quite true: Wendy Carlos beat him to the punch, issuing the stellar Switched-On Bach in '68, still the best-selling classical music LP of all time. Nonetheless, Eclectic Electrics was a fetchingly odd and compelling blend of pop, jazz, classicalism, and fusion matched only by cats like Jean-Jacques Perry, Perry Kingsley, their Perry-Kingsley duet (which released moog, tape, and synth musics in '66 and '67), the Barrons, and others. Minotaur was so stunning that Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer) picked up on it, incorporating the track prominently with his takes on Ginastera and other hoary estimables, though, uh, he never credited Dick properly ('n wot's up wid dat, eh Keef?). You can hear one of Emerson's revved-up re-do's during a jam improv on the live Welcome Back, My Friends, to the Show that Never Ends.
Sorry, had to get that off my chest. Fellow crits thoroughly ignore the cut and LP, and it's a cryin' shame. My copy of the slab resides in a place of honor, and I'm damned if I've ever lent it out. I'm not risking losing it, and it's been played often over the decades.
Lock my Heart, however, is galaxies away from that futuristic vinyl, residing instead in the milieu of the Great American Songbook and smoky nightclub jazz. Heather Masse, the real star this time out, possesses a languid, sex kitteny, eventide whispery voice that seduces in much the fashion I'm guessing the mythological sirens employed to lure pining sailors, appealing to emotions and psychologies running strongly below the realm of the everyday. Heart isn't a CD for kicking your heels up to, instead a somber but enticing exercise in, well, the more adult scenarios than otherwise and artistically very compelling. Especially the intro to her own If I Called You, for instance, hasn't seen such a mode of recitation since Joni Mitchell's Blue period—the remainder of the song ditto, but that intro's unique.
I said "somber" but that's not entirely so. Masse's Billie Holiday take on I'm Gonna Lock my Heart (and Throw Away the Key), from which the CD's title is taken, is a wonder, a complete turnabout in vocal personality, and will tickle your funny bone too…especially when you refectively realize that Betty Boop's voice was not only a reflection of flapper era strains but also Lady Day. I hadn't quite caught that until I heard this cut. The operant word for the disc other than that, however, is moody, musky, and mature. Hyman fills the backgrounds nicely—I've always claimed instrument/duet albums are the most difficult in music—waxing adventurous more than once, though the staid beauty of his choices in tracks like Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered are impeccable, so much so that Paul Williams will be drooling when he hears this version.
And to wrap up on my introductory paragraph: if, like me, you love The Minotaur, you need to know of a hidden gem. Hyman rendered a version of it on an unknown CD titled Jazz Sonatas: Brubeck, Hanna, Hyman (1994, Angel Records, CD 7243-5-55061-2-2) in a 7:38 duet with violinist Yuval Waldman that'll have you grinning like the cat that got the cream. Worth searching out.
Reviews of Bird Song
Duluth News Tribune Nov. 5th 2009
Have you ever had one of those experiences you just weren't prepared for? Where the sensory overload left your mouth and your eyes, or ears, wide-open?
That's what happened to me when I heard Heather Masse sing for the first time several years ago. The impression she left on me was indelible, and I knew we'd hear more from this amazing talent.
At the time she was with a Boston-based string band and it was the first time in Duluth for the disc-less group. As the four instrumentalists shuffled in and began tuning and noodling on their axes, a rail-thin woman with long dark hair, a summer dress and cowboy boots slipped in and stood quietly in a corner without saying anything or even warming up. I had no idea what was about to unfold.
The red light went on, and Joy Kills Sorrow launched into one of their original compositions. When the woman stepped to the mic and began to sing, it was as if someone had turned on a 500-watt incandescent bulb that glowed and gave off heat. The other instruments, good as they were, melted away as that voice just radiated.
Of all the wonderful women in music over the past 20 years, this girl just flat-out blows 'em all away.
Masse transcends mere singing. It's more like her vocal chords are a nerve ending away from what she wants to communicate to you. Her voice has an effortless majesty that's graceful and acrobatic.
"Bird Song" is Masse's first full-length solo disc showcasing her voice, her songwriting and her outstanding band of East Coast musicians.
"Hollywood" is a sassy little gem with a Rickie Lee Jones sensibility that wonders why we try to live up to societal expectations: "Can't I look different than Hollywood?"
"Over the Mountain" is a churchy ballad that lets Masse's sultry alto soar like an eagle. It sounds like an old gospel tune about redemption and finding peace "over the mountain."
Masse grew up in rural Maine. Her mother played her vocalists like Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee, and their soul was absorbed by the hairbrush-wielding youngster as she would lie on her bed and sing along.
Masse is dividing her time between the Wailin' Jenny's and her own group. She's been a guest on "A Prairie Home Companion" and does spots with Mark O'Connor's Hot Jazz group.
"Time's A Hoax" is a lovely little love song of longing that adds to a good thing when Masse's friend, and formidable singer from Crooked Still, Aoife O'Donovan, joins her with harmony vocals.
If this isn't enough, you'd be hard-pressed to find a sweeter and more humble artist than this woman. When she made her first trip to Duluth she was working with elderly patients in New York as a nurse and hated to go on the road because she'd have to leave them.
I try to avoid those cliche, boring and expected "end-of-year best-of lists," so I will give my truncated version right now and get it out of the way: "Bird Song" is my pick for record of the year for 2009. If you treat yourself, or a loved one, to only one disc this holiday season, get this one; you won't be sorry. Heather Masse is someone very special.
All Music Nov 9th
Bird Song may be singer/songwriter Heather Masse's first solo album, but she had already made a mark in more than one place before its release, as a member of folk trio the Wailin' Jennys (replacing Annabelle Chvostek after the group's third album) and as the frontwoman for rootsy New York band Heather & the Barbarians. Following a solo EP, Bird Song represents Masse's first major bid to present herself as a full-fledged, name-above-the-title auteur. She wisely puts her best foot forward by keeping the focus on her lush, velvety vocals, capable of melting butter in a Siberian winter. The arrangements, led by the sympathetic accompaniment of keyboardist Jed Wilson and lithe-fingered guitarist Lyle Brewer, are mostly sparse, but when the band takes a moment to stretch out, as on closing cut, "Mittens," things get appreciably brighter. Intentionally or not, Masse seems to be coming up to bat in the next-Norah Jonesgame that's been so ubiquitous at the female-troubadour end of the music business since the latter's ascendance, and she moves distinctly away from the overt Americana sound of her work with the Barbarianshere. Interestingly, the most successful moments on the album are the ones where she either embraces those Americana roots wholeheartedly -- the rockabilly train-beat-driven "High-Heeled Woman," the folk-spiritual "Over the Mountain," and the ones where she abandons them entirely, going for an atmospheric effect that owes little to traditional stylistic templates ("Chosen," "Be My Sailor." It's the tracks where she gets caught in between these two approaches that are the least memorable here, coming off as pretty-but-watery versions of a sound you've heard elsewhere many times that was never particularly resonant to begin with. Heading toward the extreme ends of the spectrum would seem to be the best way forward for Masse from here.
|Village Records October 13th, 2009|
With the release of her new solo album Bird Song, arriving November 10 via Red House, Masse and her band have created her most fully realized work yet, a stunning, remarkably varied collection of uniquely American music that touches progressive folk, bluegrass-tinged Americana and contemporary adult leanings. Album opener "I Don't Wanna Wake Up Today" is a gentle blues/rock swayer featuring Masse's lovely vocals and tasteful piano and guitar shadings while the goose-bump inducing title track takes a soft rhythmic accompaniment, Masse's honey-dipped voice and a Celtic-meets-Appalachia melody to subtle, celestial harmonic heights. Highly recommended.
Flying Shoes Review Nov. 20th 2009, Maurice Hope
First off I must state what a fabulously voice New York-based musician Heather Masse possesses and that she uses it beautifully. With support from her band of Jed Wilson (keyboards), Karl Doty (bass), Lyle Brewer (acoustic, electric and baritone guitar) and Joel Arnow (drums) plus, Crooked Still vocalist Aoife O’Donovan on harmony vocals simple Masse’s music comes over in a warm relaxed fashion. She wrote all the songs too —apart from the title cut ‘Bird Song’ (a co-write with fellow Wailin’ Jennys act, Nicky Mehta). From start to finish the set is spare and enchanting.
Rich in her jazz roots and folk littered with pop and country the music weaves so gently —you could compare it to fitting like an old shoe as she utilises the above in a cultured, near hypnotic fashion.
The bass playing vocalist with The Wailin’ Jennys, Masse keeps it real simple and never once over elaborates either in production or vocal delivery. There is every suggestion Heather’s popularity and fine musical acumen will go on from here. If she is cool and laidback to becoming horizontal on a couple of tracks (that I love) she kicks up more dust than a Texas twister on the rockin country, swing delight ‘High Heeled Woman’. Listen to Brewer’s trucking lead guitar runs —follow that why don’t you! I could imagine the likes of Texas blues gal Marcia Ball like with a few more tackling this one.
Seductive and superbly relaxed the peaceful ‘Mornings Breaking The Rules’ coupled with a gentle coercing vintage sounding ‘Bathtub’ (Billie Holiday etc would have loved to do this) and with tinkling piano ‘Orphan Girl’ that eases along in a heart-breaking Hem-like style are the business. Boy, what a beautiful cut this is. she wrote all the songs with few better than ‘Ophan Girl’. A song that owes a little borrowed from the chest of traditional classics in texture, tone and lyrical content as she carves out her own indelible mark.
Others of note include the jazz shuffling ‘Hollywood’, the stripped-bare ‘Be My Sailor’ and with an infectious lilt to it ‘Mittens’ weaves between country and folk in splendid fashion (great acoustic bass and effective piano). There are others of note, and some though sleepers they are non-the less quality. Songs like ‘Time Is A Hoax’ and the gentle coercing ‘Be My Sailor’ are of the kind that you will be end up playing time and time again and enjoy more every time you hear them.
"What a voice! Every once in a while I happen on a voice so pure, with such great texture, intonation, time and phrasingthat it stops me in my tracks. Heather Masse has all that and more." - John Ziegler, KUMD
"Heather Masse has a stunningly beautiful voice and impeccable musicianship. You don't want to miss a chance to hear this singer." - Jazz singer Dominique Eade
"The icing on the cake [of Joy Kills Sorrow] though, is vocalist Heather Masse, whose voice hovers somewhere between Alison Krauss and Maura O'Connell, with the versatility to take on material as widely diverse as Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone", Hank William's "Weary Blues from Waitin'," Paul Seibels's "Louise" and old time standards like "Train on the Island," yet give them each her own intriguing twist." - Sing Out Magazine
"Masse may be the perfect catch for The Wailin' Jennys, which is rounded out by Ruth Moody and Nicky Mehta...Of course, there's also her voice: Masse's surprisingly deep vocal sent a ripple of reaction through the audience. It's a throaty voice, fit for sultry jazz, and it was best showcased on a spooky a cappella rendition of Lead Belly's Bring Me Little Water Sylvie." - Uptown Magazine, Winnipeg
"For the Words Project, New York based reedist Sam Sadigursky crafts ten pieces to accompany poems by lesser-known poets... Heather Masse's performances are the standouts. While this would be a solid record without her involvement, her interpretations and ability to wrap herself into the core of each syllable sends this record into the emotional stratosphere. The record's opening piece, the haunting 'After Paradise,' cuts deep due to Rende's crestfallen piano and Masse's rich alto that eventually builds to a simmering vamp. Masse's interpretation of 'Water, Aspirin, You' matches perfectly with Sadigursky's moving score that allows her to stretch her impressive range and is at its apexduring wordless unison vocalizing. Though the tango dance of'In The Kitchen' is probably not meant to show off the sensuality of Masse's voice, really, it's the kind of performance (and voice) that one could never tire of hearing." - Cadence Magazine's review of The Words Project