An unusual musical path led a Montana guitar-and-vocal duo to play bossa nova, open for Frank Zappa‘s son, win a songwriting contest and record their debut album in Asheville. But guitarist Max Hatt takes it all in stride, saying, “ I don’t think things have changed very much, other than us having the opportunity to really refine what we’ve been doing all along.”
Hatt and vocalist Edda Glass first got together musically in Helena, Montana. There they formed a group called Rio to play bossa nova standards. “We worked quite as much as anybody else in the state,” Hatt says. But the duo’s musical aspirations went beyond their repertoire of songs by Brazilian jazz legend João Gilberto. Hatt and Glass won a grant that would finance some demo recordings, and they began writing their own songs. But “there really weren’t any venues to play it in,” says Edda Glass.
The original songs of Max Hatt / Edda Glass “are very inspired by the west, the grandeur of the landscape,” Glass says. “People often comment on the amount of space in our music, that we don’t fill it up,” adds Hatt. “I think that’s reflective of the nature of the west, where there are a lot of open spaces, good places for self-reflection and introspection.”
The duo’s music is informed by bossa nova, but ventures beyond that style. “All these songs were originally written as guitar jazz trio instrumentals,” Glass says. “Edda wrote all these beautiful vocals for them.” He compares the original music to the classics they still play at many shows: “They’re obviously in a different language, and the setting’s a little different – it’s not Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro; it’s somewhere in rural Montana – but for us, the aesthetic is very similar.”
Glass says that when she and Hatt relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, “Suddenly we started to find audiences who were actually interested in listening to a song start to finish, in a more concert-style environment.” Hatt and Glass decided to take part in the NewSong Music Contest, held annually at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. They won the Grand Prize, and the award package included album sessions at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Recording Studio, with Pat Sansone producing.
Sansone – a member of Wilco and leader of his own side-project band Autumn Defense – was one of the NewSong judges and quickly became an admirer of the music of Max Hatt / Edda Glass. Hatt says that “Pat has been incredibly supportive.”
The Echo Mountain sessions that yielded Ocean of Birds (released May 20) featured world-renowned, Asheville-based percussionist River Guerguerian. “He’s a super drummer and a positive person with great energy,” says Hatt. Glass agrees: “He really embodies the Asheville vibe. He brought a lot of great texture to the album.”
The songs on Ocean of Birds display a conversational quality. Lyricist Glass admits, “My favorite way to hear them is as solo guitar pieces. Before they have lyrics, they still have a sort of mystery attached.” But Glass’ clear, supple vocals add an additional emotional dimension to the music. The duo’s songs are subtle, contemplative, and often melancholy; qualities that might not seem likely to go over well when opening for the electric guitar pyrotechnics of Dweezil Zappa.
“There was quite a contrast,” laughs Hatt. “I’ve been involved in a guitar workshop and festival that goes on every year in Montana. And last year, Edda was invited to be involved in a songwriting class with Madeleine Peyroux. Then we were asked to do a performance as an opener for Dweezil.” The open-minded audience gave Max Hatt / Edda Glass a warm reception.
Hatt gives an idea of what to expect at a show: “We basically blend things. You’re going to get a little bit of bossa nova.” But the primary focus is on originals from Ocean of Birds. The two styles complement each other: “The transitions are pretty smooth,” he says. Glass adds, “The overlap is just in terms of the harmonics and the underlying structure of the songs.”
An edited version of this feature appeared previously in Mountain Xpress.