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Roswell Rudd & Heather Masse: August Love Song

C. Michael Bailey By

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I am reading a book entitled When Breathe Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. The book details the most fundamental things of life, those things as close to us as skin. He derives his title from the 17th Century sonnet series by Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke, an Elizabethan poet, dramatist, and statesman who sat in the House of Commons at various times between 1581 and 1621. Greville was no George Gordon, Lord Byron, much less a John Milton, his contemporary. However, he could turn a thoughtful rhyme. The gist of Greville in his Caelica 83 is that, in the end, what we seek is the organic truth that most of us never manage to grasp, much less imagine. Music easily summons similar thoughts and feelings. Such musing summons that ancient Latin of Genesis 3:19 recited every Ash Wednesday:

Meménto, homo, quia pulvis es, et in púlverem revertéris.

Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return


As close to us as skin. How unlikely is the pairing of youthful and exuberant vocalist like Heather Masse and the free jazz deity of one Roswell Rudd? It is almost the punchline for a punny joke. Yet, we have August Love Song and what can we make of it?

First, the cover art recalls the movie poster of Summer of '42 (Warner Brothers, 1971) crossed with Love Story (Paramount, 1970). But this love story is one of music...ageless, constant, basic, organic. Both a sepia nostalgia and a fresh, post-modern veneer are evident in these ten well-crafted pieces. They are brilliant contradictions that perfectly complement one another.

Rudd and Masse met one another about four years while appearing on A Prairie Home Companion where Masse has appeared many times, both as a solo ace and as a member of the Wailin' Jennys, a popular folk group consisting of alto Masse, with soprano Ruth Moody and mezzo Nicky Mehta (the current lineup). Masse has made two recordings with the Wailin' Jennys and two solo recordings, her last being the well-received Lock My Heart (Red House Records, 2015) made with pianist Dick Hyman. Of that recording, All About Jazz critic Dan Bilawsky said: ..."Masse may or may not be back on the folk side of the fence but, if she has indeed flown on, she'll hopefully come back to visit jazz on occasion; a songbird with her talents, after all, should be free to fly wherever she pleases." This spirit is in no way diminished on August Love Song.

Behold this curious chemistry where Rudd and Masse prod and feed off one another. Masse emulates Rudd with the most spirited scat and vocalese of recent memory and Rudd digs deep, way past his freedom days, back to when Kid Ory transmogrified into Tricky Sam Nanton crossed with Al Grey on their way to the Eminent JJ Johnson. This chemistry, alchemy really, blooms from the small confines of a quitar-bass rhythm section supporting the two principals. This gives the music a '20s and '30s Hot Club aroma, but that aroma is pine- needle sharp with gin...the good stuff, too. Masse grows languid from Rudd's almost boozy blowing, characteristically in the lower register.

Perfect is Masse and Rudd's command of Gigi Gryce's "Socal Call" as realized by Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Betty Carter. She slows her crack phrasing to the rheology of Molasses. The two build a monument worthy of being strolled through with the diptych made up of "I'm Going Sane (One Day at a Time)" and "Mood Indigo," the latter introduced by Rudd with a growling "It Don't Mean a Thing." The pair duet on the Ellington piece and the results are that of a smoky diamond awaiting proper discovery. Masse reaches deep herself and finds the blues and she is not shy in sharing them with us. A musical center of beautifully titrated honey and Quaaludes languidness.

But we have yet to hear the best. The medley of "Blackstrap Molasses" and "That Old Devil Moon" look clean and clear as water from the old home place well, except for the razor bite of the moonshine when you hear it. This is music that makes you wish you could live forever just to hear more of it. Rudd and Masse close with a sweetly quaint "Our Live is Here to Stay," capping as fine a recording as I believe I can bear.

Track Listing: Social Call; Love Song for August; I’m Going Sane (One Day at a Time); Mood Indigo; Winter Blues; Blackstrap Molasses-Old Devil Moon; Con Alma; Open House; Tova and Kyla Rain; Love is Here to Stay.

Personnel: Heather Masse: vocals; Roswell Rudd: trombone; Rolf Sturm: guitars; Mark Helias: bass.

Title: August Love Song | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Red House

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