Heather Masse & Dick Hyman,
Lock My Heart
(Red House, 2013)

One hardly expects to see Heather Masse's name and Dick Hyman's sharing the performers' byline on an album cover. The sight occasioned something of a double take when my eyes first took it in. Masse, who is young, is a singer-songwriter best known for her association with the folk-pop group Wailin' Jennys. Hyman, who was 85 when Lock My Heart was recorded, is a universally revered figure in any number of musical areas: jazz, ragtime, classic pop, chamber, ballet, film score and more. Surprising if only because one would not have anticipated that the two know each other (they met while both were appearing on Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion), the musical pairing of Masse and Hyman turns out to be an inspired one.

On Lock the two delve into a dozen numbers from the Great American Songbook, with Masse singing and Hyman on jazz-tinged piano accompaniment. Though I claim no expertise in the genre of pre-rock adult popular music of the sort most prominently associated with Sinatra, Bennett and Fitzgerald, I have heard it all of my life. Most of the songs here have flitted in and out of hearing and consciousness at one time or another. I was well into my own adulthood, though, before I began to appreciate how elegantly crafted are these songs of romantic yearning. They conjure up the sort of guarded love and stoic loss (and occasional ironic humor) it takes hard-won experience to recognize, much less to express as evocatively as Masse, whose voice pretty much defines smoky alto, and Hyman.

If you're looking for an instant example, consider the shiver-inducing interpretation of Kurt Weill's "September Song." In callow youth I could have had no more than some abstract sense of what a line like "The days dwindle down to a precious few" could have meant. Masse conveys that meaning with almost unsettling psychic precision as the keys of Hyman's piano conjure up falling leaves, sinking temperatures and uneasy reflections on too-brief mortality.

At this point you could resort to the cliche that they don't make 'em like that anymore, except that they just did. Lock's dozen songs communicate truth, sorrow and hope without sentimentality, artifice and extraneous word or note. At one time in our cultural history, when rock marginalized all else, this kind of music was categorized (more accurately, disparaged) alongside lesser, more disposable music as mere "easy listening." It is, however, nothing of that. In its gorgeous but unsparing evocation of grown-up feeling, it is demanding in the way of true art. Happily, Lock My Heart's demands are ones you'll be delighted to have made of you.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 March 2013

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