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Radio, radio: Massé and band at the WAMC Performing Arts Studio. Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen

Singin’ on Air
Cabaret artist, jazz singer, teacher, student and radio host—Laurel Massé keeps swingin’ along

By Shawn Stone

It’s a few minutes before air itime at the WAMC Performing Arts Studio. An announcer with a clipboard comes out to give the audience a rundown on broadcast procedure. He gives a few live-radio pointers—for instance, clapping fast sounds better, apparently, than clapping slow. Then the star of show, Laurel Massé, skips out to join the trio of musicians on stage. She radiates energy as she checks her music and jokes with the band.

The piano player begins a song. Massé stops him: “Play it less bright.” She laughs, and turns to the audience to explain that “less bright” means, in musician-speak, to play slower, not with diminished intelligence.

A minute before 8 PM, the announcer starts his final countdown, and another edition of the monthly Laurel Massé Show has begun. The format of the 90-minute program is relaxed and informal. Massé sings with her band. A guest performs a set, and then accompanies Massé. The host interacts with the audience in a radio-friendly conversational tone; this day happens to be Collette’s birthday, and Massé, a big fan, reads a passage from the French writer on the air.

The program, Massé’s own brainchild, has been running on WAMC-FM for almost two years. In 2002, the station had just dropped a live cabaret show, and the Performing Arts Studio/Linda Norris Auditorium was new. In fact, Massé was a guest on the gala premiere show with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, and it gave her the idea for her own program.

“I thought the auditorium was such a huge improvement for a performance space on what they had before,” she notes, “and I have always loved doing radio.” In the 1970s, during her years with Manhattan Transfer, Massé was, she remembers, “always the one who was happy when the road manager said ‘we have a radio interview tomorrow morning at five o’clock.’ I love the medium.” She pitched the idea of the show to WAMC poobah Dr. Alan Chartock, and he loved it.

The radio show, along with the 2001 release of her deeply personal album Feather and Bone (recorded at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall), marked something of a milestone for Massé. Her tenure with the Transfer ended in 1979. After pursuing a solo career in the 1980s, she spent a dozen years in what has been described as a kind of self-imposed exile in the Adirondacks. Now, her career resurgent, she’s pursuing every opportunity. Her next project is a collaboration with choreographer Ellen Sinopoli and swing dancer Adrian Warnock-Graham, which will culminate in a performance at the Egg, here in Albany, on May 1. She’ll sing, they’ll dance.

This evening, Massé swings through a diverse set of standards, including a playful “Slow Boat to China,” a version of “(Do You Know What It Means) To Miss New Orleans” tinged with just enough regret, and a properly bemused-by-love take on the Kingston Trio’s “Scotch and Soda.” The pairing of guest and star often leads to some interesting jams: Tonight’s guests are the Brian Patneaude Quartet, and the bluesy collaboration, with Massé, her band, saxman Patneaude and guitarist George Muscatello is inspired.

Reached by phone on a recent Friday afternoon, Massé had just returned to her home near New Paltz from an engagement in Arizona. With her accompanist, acclaimed pianist Francesca Tanksley, Massé taught a master class at Arizona State University in Tempe, and performed at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Scottsdale. The master class was part of an arts-in-engineering conference cosponsored by the university’s engineering and music departments.

Arts-in-engineering? The subject, she explains, relates to the physiological effects of music. “I guess I was being ‘the brain on music.’ ” Massé says.

Massé loves teaching: “It’s something I really love to do, and I’m expanding my schedule of [master classes]. It’s very rewarding.”

She explains that every student has something of value to offer. Looking back on her teaching experience, she says, “I learned so much from rank novice singers. I learned so much from semi-experienced singers. I learned so much from experienced singers. It’s quite amazing.” Then, in a sly tone of voice, she adds, “Of course I’m extremely experienced, so everybody learns something from me.”

With the exception of the Sinopoli performance—and, of course, the radio show—Massé’s schedule doesn’t start to get full until the end of June. (And then it stays full all the way through September.) First, she’ll do a week at Jay Ungar’s and Molly Mason’s Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp. She explains: “I am the voice gal for the western and swing week. I get to sing with the live band—a wonderful live band.” Then there are a series of cabaret gigs in New York City and around the Hudson Valley, a week at Odette’s (an intimate club in New Hope, Penn.) and appearances at a number of outdoor festivals, including a July 13 date at the Collar City Live! extravaganza at Troy’s Riverfront Park. Until summer, however, she isn’t doing much performing. Massé explains, “This year I’ve cut back a lot on touring because I’m in the process of getting a degree.”

The teacher, it turns out, is also a student: Massé has been pursuing a bachelor-of-arts degree, with a concentration in jazz studies, through Empire State College. And she’s looking forward to the day when, she says, “I get to flip my tassel.”

Most of her program is structured around independent study. As she notes, “I can’t take two years entirely out of my career to sit in a classroom.” Massé did take classes, however, in jazz theory and improvisation, for two semesters at the SUNY College at New Paltz. Asked if this was a little strange, she laughs, “Well I have to say, once I got over the initial feeling that ‘I’m a grownup, I should know this stuff, they’re just kids,’ I learned so much.”

It was a rewarding experience. “I learned a lot from the students that were younger than me,” she says, noting that “in that context, they actually had more formal music training than I did.” It was a mutually helpful relationship, she remembers: “They knew what everything was called, but they didn’t necessarily know how to do it. I knew how to do it, but didn’t necessarily know what it was called.”

All this talk about the study of music leads Massé to muse on the nature of singing.

“The great singers really reveal the best of themselves on the stage, to the point,” she laughs, “that they’re [often] nicer on stage than when they’re offstage.” She pauses, and ads: “The main thing in singing is to tell the truth.”

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