Laurel makes many fans happy for continuing with a dream that is the music

If the name Laurel Massé sounds familiar to you, it might be that you remember her as one of the founding members of the pop-jazz vocal group The Manhattan Transfer in the 70s. After a long hiatus from performing with a band, she is excited about her resurgent career in music, with an upcoming show on April 9 at the McKenna Theater on the SUNY New Paltz campus. Asked about her connection to the SUNY New Paltz Music Department, she responded, laughing, “I loan them my band. Mark Dzuiba, the head of the Jazz Studies Program is my guitarist and Vinnie Martucci, my fabulous keyboard player, teaches Jazz History and Jazz Theory, so I’m connected. Or is it they loan me their instructors?”

A tall, thin redhead, Massé exudes a vivacious sense of energy through a sparkling gaze and an easy laugh that belies the struggles she has endured. This spark has been rekindled, in part, by her recent move to the New Paltz area which ended a 12 year self-imposed exile in the Adirondacks. As we talked over coffee in New Paltz in late March, Massé told me about her attachment to the Mid-Hudson Valley. “This place is really magic. The people are great and the energy of the place is very special.” Her excitement was tangible and unmistakable, having experienced it myself as a transplant over 10 years ago.

Massé’s career began with a stroke of luck—she had the unusual good fortune of achieving early success. Shortly after moving to New York City in 1971, she hailed a ride with musician/cabby Tim Hauser. This led to the formation of the pop jazz vocal group The Manhattan Transfer. The group slowly and steadily grew a large devoted audience that foreshadowed the mainstream success they would find in the 80s.

Yet in 1978, Massé’s luck turned on her. Shortly before Christmas she drove her car into a lamppost, breaking her jaw. After a bone graft and the insertion of a metal plate, her jaw had to be wired shut for several months. Unable to open her mouth, let alone sing, she was forced to leave the Transfer two years before they would put together a string of Grammy winning hits, beginning in 1980 with “Birdland” and followed with the mega-hit “Boy From New York City.” When asked about it, she paused and took a deep breath before answering. “In low moments I think of it as having knocked me out of my life and into someone else’s life.” She paused again, blinking, before continuing, “The hard thing was that it led me to leave the Transfer because I couldn’t get better as fast as they needed to get back on the road. I had to wait a year and a half, two years, and by the time I got back out there, I was physically okay, emotionally still pretty broken, and worst of all, not remembered. I had to start all over again, and it was much harder and [more] discouraging than I had anticipated.”

After moving to Chicago to pursue a career as a jazz singer, in 1988, drained of energy and seeking direction, she sought refuge in the anonymity of the Adirondacks. “I had heard a story on NPR about a woman who lived on one of the small Greek islands, and she was the singer of the island. If there were births, she led the celebrating, if there were funerals, she led the grieving. If there were weddings, she led the singing and the joy. And the rest of the time she grew tomatoes and milked her goat. And that’s what I wanted to be.” The isolation she found in the mountains allowed for a period of introspection as she worked odd jobs to survive, including grooming horses, training dogs, and as an apprentice to an herbal-shaman, occasionally traveling to Chicago to perform with her band. “I was so isolated I started singing a cappella and discovered through singing a cappella who I am as an artist and as a person.” After a hiatus from performing, she decided to book a hall in the Adirondacks without accompaniment as a challenge to herself. “Whereas before I had fallen into a successful career in music because I had the facility, now as soon as I set foot onstage with nobody else behind me it was a conscious choice. It wasn’t easy … it was very hard. But not as hard as not doing it, which I found impossible.”

Performing more frequently at small upstate venues, Massé’s first few concerts were straightforward and very autobiographical, as she sang songs from her youth or simply songs she liked. As her solo performances evolved and she became more comfortable alone on stage, she expanded her repertoire to include improvisational pieces, along with older traditional songs. The culmination of this period of growth was the 1999 album Feather and Bone, with a set list that spans two thousand years and several cultures. It was recorded live in the old Troy Savings Bank Music Hall with a handful of other performers and released with no post-production. It is an album that lends itself to headphones, especially for voice aficionados. Displaying an impressive five octave range and astounding control, Massé vocally interprets parts of the Bach Cello Suites, a 12th-century piece by Hildegard von Bingen and the oldest notated Western piece of music, “Hymn to the Muse,” composed by Mesomedes of Crete, as well as a Quaker hymn and a couple of traditional American folk songs. Her diverse selections, largely influenced by her fascination with the mythologist Joseph Campbell, are simple and tastefully arranged. Although Feather and Bone does not sound like a jazz album—Massé sings as convincingly in Latin as in English and improvises as freely accompanied by bagpipes as she does a piano—she feels that she is a jazz singer at her core. When I asked her about improvisation she replied, “Campbell says the edge is where the magic is. The edge is the moment, never to be repeated. I think the most present I ever am is during a performance, when I am singing and improvising and hearing what’s around me.”

Through increased involvement in the upstate New York music scene she met Molly Mason and Jay Unger, the Hudson Valley folk music icons who invited Massé to teach voice at their summer music camp in Ashokan in 1998. This is where she was introduced to her current keyboardist, Vinnie Martucci. “They basically gift-wrapped one of the most talented pianists I’ve ever worked with and said ‘here, this is your accompaniment.’” That week of summer camp lured the hermit from her cave, and after a year and a half of commuting three hours one way to work with Vinnie, she found herself moving closer to the Hudson Valley and recording Ballads: Laurel Massé and Vinnie Martucci, a cabaret-style album of jazz standards. Vinnie, in turn, introduced her to her current band members, guitarist Mark Dzuiba, bassist Steve Rust, and drummer T. Xiques.

Her upcoming show at SUNY New Paltz is the beginning of the first tour that features Massé playing with a full jazz band in years, but do not expect that to limit her unusual song selection. “It’s a very eclectic selection of music with an emphasis on jazz, but I will also be doing some a cappella pieces as well as playing with the band … I undoubtedly will sing some Bach, but not necessarily the same Bach that I’ve done before. The reason that I feel that I can play all these different kinds of music is that at my core I feel that I am a jazz singer, and jazz has always borrowed from every style of music. I like going to the great tapas bar of music and having some of everything…And you know really, music is just music. There are only so many notes.”

In addition to her first tour in years, Massé will be hosting a monthly program on Albany’s National Public Radio station, WAMC. It will air on the last Wednesday of the month, starting May 29. She and her band will perform live on the air with an array of special guests. Her enthusiasm bubbles to the surface, as it so easily does when talking about her resurgent career in music. “My romance with jazz is really only getting serious now…I feel more excited about my career than I ever have, more in love with my art form than I ever have been. The more I sing, the more I learn, and the richer it gets.”

The topic rolled back around to Joseph Campbell. Already convinced she made the right decision to move to New Paltz and not LA, she was amazed when I told her about Steven Larsen’s Center for Symbolic Studies in Tillson. (Steven Larsen wrote the authorized Campbell biography A Fire in the Mind, and is regarded as an authority on Campbell.) Commenting on an influential phone conversation she had with a friend in California that led directly to the end of her self-imposed exile, she said, “We were discussing the phrase ‘follow your bliss,’ which Campbell advised, but never really explained and we figured out this: Your bliss is that thing that you loved to do, before anyone told you that you were good at it. And for me that was singing songs to myself. As a little girl I used to sit in the back seat of the car singing over the drone of the engine. And that realization led me to a cappella. That in turn has brought me here, back to working with other musicians who are following their bliss. It’s what I would wish for everybody.” In a time when music is usually considered product for consumers rather than one of the oldest, most sacred arts, it is refreshing to hear a blissful voice emerging from the wilderness, truly following her muse.

In 2004 she also joined the faculty of The Cabaret Conference at Yale as a master
instructor of jazz and cabaret. As part of her commitment to supporting and collaborating with
other singers at all levels of experience, she teaches master classes in song interpretation and
improvisation for professionals and amateurs, and comprehensive performance master classes
with singer and director Wendy Lane Bailey.

In 2004 she was recognized for her contribution to music when she, along with the four current
members of the Manhattan Transfer, received the prized "MAC" (Manhattan Association of
Cabarets and Clubs) Lifetime Achievement Award. She has been nominated Major Jazz Artist of
2006 by that same association.

Thank you laurel for continuing forward...
Los fans le damos las gracias por seguir adelante.

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