Friday, February 15, 2013

Heather Masse gets jazzy with a legend on 'Lock My Heart'

When Heather Masse, a 2000 graduate of Fryeburg Academy, was younger she used to play and sing through a Dick Hyman playbook. Now, nearly 20 years later, Masse has not only met the 85-year-old jazz pianist, she has recorded the recently released "Lock My Heart" with him.

"I think she'd be pretty darn excited," Masse said of what her 12-year-old self would make of recording with Hyman. "I sort of feel the same way that I did back then. I just feel so fortunate and so lucky to have played with such a legend...He is such a great person and also his musicianship just totally blew me away even more than I thought it would."

Masse, a member of The Wailing' Jennys as well as a solo artist who released "Bird Song," a collection of original songs in 2009, first met Hyman through Garrison Keillor during one of her regular appearances on "A Prairie Home Companion." Keillor thought the two should play together and so they did on Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."

"It was one of those magical moments when you're really connected to the other person and there's just this buzz and so that was really fun," Masse said.

It was a couple years later that she decided to record a jazz album. Masse, who feels a connection to the songs of the 1940s and 1950s, wanted to record with someone from that era.

"There is something so different with playing music with someone who really lived those songs and was around when they were popular songs," Masse said.

On a whim she contacted Hyman about performing on the album and was "ecstatic" to discover he was quite willing to oblige.

Initially, having only met Hyman once, she worried about collaborating with him. She knew they had musical chemistry, but was concerned about being separated by three generations and whether they'd be able to connect on a personal level. Her fears proved unwarranted.

"It was such a joy," Masse said. "He was just fabulous and so open, so creative. We basically went into the studio and took all live takes and each take was so different because every song he was bringing forth all these new ideas and all this neat creative stuff that brought me out of my shell a little bit too and let me explore things that I wouldn't have necessarily if I hadn't been playing with him."

The positive feelings were reciprocated by Hyman, who also used the word "joy" in describing the experience of working with Masse.

"What a singer! [She's] in perfect command of her technique, with the grasp of all sorts of styles, and with the improvisational ability of a jazz, blues, folk performer always at hand," Hyman said in the liner notes of the album. "I consider myself lucky to have been able to work together with her. And she absolutely surprised me when she unexpectedly pulled out another personality entirely and began to sing 'I'm Gonna Lock My Heart.'"

The whole album is a wonderful showcase of Masse's versatile voice, but, indeed, "I'm Gonna Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key" is a truly unexpected surprise.

"That was sort of a fluke actually," Masse said. "I knew that song from the Billie Holiday version and really was just playing around in between tracks and I just started singing in that voice. It is sort of my Billie Holiday/Betty Boop voice and I was not being serious. Dick heard it and said 'We have to do the song that way!' At first, I was like 'I don't know,' but it just turned out to be really fun and a fun way to have a new energy on the album."

The songs on "Lock My Heart," a collection of jazz classic mixed with original compositions by Masse, were selected by Masse with some input from Hyman. Recording took place after a single day of rehearsal in Hyman's studio in Florida.

Masse greatly admired Hyman's library of original sheet music of songs from the 1940s and 1950s and was fascinated to discover how drastically the arrangements have changed over the years.

"There's a way of playing those songs now that aren't actually the real arrangements of those songs, so people play them differently," Masse said. "It was really neat to have him go into his little library and take out the sheet music and open it up and see how different some of the chords were and even melodies were sometimes different than how I'd learned them because they changed so much over the years."

Masse's own songs sit perfectly and seamlessly next to these great standards, but in her songwriting process she rarely sets out to emulate a particular era of music.

"Usually my songs come organically and I'm not really thinking ahead," Masse said. "Sometimes it is more thought out and preconceived. Usually my songs come out all at once."

Her song "I Called You" is a particularly strong example of her talent as a songwriter. The lyrics tap into universal fears like whether our love will be reciprocated and if we will be remembered, needed and wanted. While the song is a mournful love ballad, the origins of the song were something entirely different.

"It started out as being a song about the Alzheimer's patients I used to work with as a therapist and activities director in an Alzheimer's unit for a couple years when I lived in Boston right after college," Masse said. "I was thinking about the disease and how much it affects these people. Their family members come in and they can't recognize their daughter or their son or their wife or husband. It started out with me thinking about that and how hard that must be, but it sort of turned into this love song afterwards."

"Lock My Heart" has been critically well received with glowing reviews from All About Jazz and

"Masse's voice is perfectly natural and fresh — lush and supple," C. Michael Bailey wrote in his All About Jazz review. "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."

In an era of vocal bombastics by many of today's most popular female vocalists, there's something pure and refreshing about a performer who doesn't need to show off to prove a point.

"I think a great song doesn't need that," Masse said. "With a great song you can sing the melody and you don't need to use all the fireworks because it already has so much depth in it."

And that's exactly what "Lock My Heart" is: a collection of great songs beautifully brought to life by two immensely talented performers.

"Lock My Heart" ends with Masse singing "See ya later" and she does promise more.

"I just love the music of the American songbook," Masse said. "It brings me joy and it takes me to this other place when I am singing it, so I'll definitely have another one in the works at some point."

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