If you play Lock My Heart, the new duo album of jazz vocals from Heather Masse and pianist Dick Hyman on the iTunes player, its genre is identified as country and western. This is presumably because of the singer’s membership in The Wailin’ Jennies, her stints with a contemporary bluegrass outfit like The Wayfaring Strangers, or even her Prairie Home Companion appearances. But don’t be confused, as Lock My Heart is not only jazz, it is jazz finely honed to its essentials. Masse sings with a pure clarity of voice and phrasing that honors the music, while octogenarian Dick Hyman provides the kind of collaborative accompaniment that can only come with years of experience.
Most of the tunes on the album are classic jazz pieces but there are a few exceptions. There are two originals by Masse, a talented songwriter in her own right: the plaintive ballad “If I Called You” and the one song on the album that comes closest to anything country, at least in its lyric, if not in performance, “Morning Drinker.” They do a smoky version of the The Skyliners’ doo-wop oldie “Since I Don’t Have You,” adding a rocking piano towards the end. It is one of the album’s highlights.
Still, classic songs are the heart of the album. They begin with a haunting take on Rogers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and follow with a quirky version of “Lullaby of Birdland” that is truly original. She delivers sensitive vocals on two gorgeous songs from Kurt Weill: “September Song” and “Lost in the Stars.” Together with Hyman, she makes you feel just how great this music is. They do a hard driving, uptempo “Love for Sale” with Hyman delivering some dynamic work on the piano. The Duke Ellington/Paul Webster standard “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good” is elegantly soulful. Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” is a plaintive ballad, and Masse delivers it with subdued intensity that does the poetic lyric proud. Her interpretations of these well-known classics are second to none.
The album closes with “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart (And Throw Away the Key),” and if you didn’t know better, you’d think you were listening to a different singer. In an homage to the great Billie Holiday, who probably made the best known version of the song, Masse seems to channel the Lady Day’s vocal style in a real honky tonk arrangement. It is a kind of surprise ending to the disc, and shows the versatility of the singer trained in jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Masse and Hyman make a great team. Together they have come up with an outstanding set of jazz vocals. Lock My Heart is an album filled with tunes you will want to hear again and again.