Trombonist Roswell Rudd and vocalist Heather Masse met on A Prairie Home Companion a few years back when Rudd performed with the Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band and Masse was guest vocalist. “I first heard of Roswell Rudd when I was in jazz school, in college, and one of my best friends, the Korean singer Sunny Kim, was in his quartet,” says Masse. “On Prairie Home Companion, we learned we lived about six miles apart from each other, so we started getting together as neighbors, and then gradually started playing music together. It was a natural progression; it happened organically.”
Then, after playing together informally for two or three years, the two musicians decided to record an album together. They have just released August Love Song (Red House Records CD298, 2016).
“We felt a musical connection right away, after the first couple of tunes we played. There was a sense of getting in touch and letting our own voices shine, of opening up,” says Masse, recalling their first playdates in Rudd’s living room. “He’s a remarkable person, so open, and beauty just pours out of him, both musically and as a person. He really loves being present in the moment and in the music.” His tune “Open House” captures this welcoming feeling with a sweet, lively peek into what it might feel like to sit in a corner and listen while these musical friends improvise and have fun doing it.
At 81, Rudd is about five decades ahead of Masse in years, but the two found rich common ground in jazz standards that they both enjoy and, eventually, in trying out a few originals, too. They played together every couple of weeks, sometimes inviting guitarist Rolf Sturm (Masse’s friend, who also lived in the neighborhood) and bassist Mark Helias (with whom Rudd had played) to join in. Mostly, though, it was Rudd and Masse, and eventually they felt ready to record.
“It was a real pleasure, but it was a little bit scary for me to go there,” Masse admits. “You just never know what’s going to happen,” she says, because you’re dealing with the energy of the day, the energy of the room and of the people. “But it was really important to both of us to do it in Roswell’s living room, because we had all this history of playing there. We’re really happy with how it came out. Chris Anderson of Nevessa [Studios] brought his sound truck and set up a couple of sound barriers so we could do overdubs or new takes, but we really didn’t end up doing any. It’s all live takes for the most part, except for a little editing in the mixing.” Eric Peltoniemi, president of Red House Records, and Verna Gillis, Rudd’s partner and manager, who also co-wrote two tunes with Rudd, were on-site too.
The set offers a warm showcase for the lively interplay between Rudd’s warm, fat tones and Masse’s richly expressive voice. Rudd, Masse, Sturm and Helias open their set with an elegantly buoyant take on “Social Call,” a lovely standard by Gigi Gryce, followed by the CD’s title cut, “August Love Song,” which Masse penned for her son. Rudd and Gillis co-wrote “Tova and Kyla Rain” and “I’m Goin’ Sane (One Day at a Time)” and Rudd wrote another original, “Winter Blues.” The CD also features Dizzy Gillespie’s classic “Con Alma,” “Old Devil Moon” (with Masse scatting her own intro, “Blackstrap Molasses”), “Love Is Here to Stay” and Duke Ellington’s gorgeous “Mood Indigo.” Masse says the latter tune is her favorite on the recording. “I really love how ‘Mood Indigo’ turned out, especially the horn and voice at the beginning. We really blended together in an organic improvisation. It felt great,” she admits. “I like listening to that tune. It brings back the moment.”
“I feel so lucky we stumbled upon each other,” continues Masse. “Roswell opens me up musically. He has a way of pulling things out of you, because there’s so much freedom in his playing.” Many call Rudd the father of free-jazz trombone, and he’s widely acknowledged for his work with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and drummer Dennis Charles, pianist Cecil Taylor and the New York Art Quartet, among many others. But his tastes have always run the gamut of music, spanning from Dixieland to avant-garde, including more recently celebrated ethnomusical excursions with the Mongolian Buryat Band, Puerto Rican cuatro player Yomo Toro (and a host of Afro-Cuban and South American musicians) and Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté.
Throughout, Rudd’s soulful warmth and openhearted approach to making music remain irrepressible and always clear. “He doesn’t think of himself as a free-jazz musician. He always tries to say he’s just a musician who loves to play, to stay present within that,” says Masse. “And yes, you’re right: There’s a soulfulness about him, no matter what he’s playing. What I see is his love of music, and the depth of it. His openness brings opportunities in almost any music or players that he interacts with; he finds the goodness.”
Masse trained at the New England Conservatory of Music as a jazz vocalist. She has toured and recorded with the Wailin’ Jennys, a folk trio who have earned Billboard chart placements, a Canadian Juno and acclaim throughout the world. She followed her solo debut for Red House (Bird House, 2009) with an album of jazz standards and originals with pianist Dick Hyman (Lock My Heart, 2013). And she has recorded a few other releases that, like Rudd, straddle diverse musical worlds: In her case, she stretches into bluegrass, folk and jazz with artists like Mark O’Connor, Darol Anger, the Wayfaring Strangers and Heather & the Barbarians.
“I feel really lucky I don’t have to be in a box – just folky or just jazz – because I wouldn’t feel completely satisfied. Both are a big part of who I am,” she says, adding that is why she enjoys touring with her brother-in-law, pianist Jed Wilson, and with the Wailin’ Jennys. “The Wailin’ Jennys have been on a hiatus, but we will start working on a new record soon. And I’ve been singing on Garrison’s last season of Prairie Home Companion about once a month or so. I want to do a solo recording, and though I’m not sure when or what it will be, I have a lot of songs that I’ve not recorded. I want to get them ‘on tape,’ as they say. It will fuse the jazz part of me with the folky part of me, and be more of a mix, a blend – but it’s not clear yet,” Masse says.
To date, two gigs are booked to celebrate the release of Rudd and Masse’s August Love Song: July 28 at Joe’s Pub in New York City and an August date to be determined at the Bearsville Theater. But don’t wait until then; buy your own copy of August Love Song and take your ears and soul on a luscious musical journey.
August Love Song (Red House Records CD298, 2016), Heather Masse & Roswell Rudd, released February 26; www.redhouserecords.com.