JaLaLa’s brings its ‘magic’ touch to Mercer songs

Laurel Massé is lucky. The fiery, red-headed singer has seen and been through much in a career that
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Laurel Massé is lucky.

The fiery, red-headed singer has seen and been through much in a career that has spanned close to 40 years. A near-fatal car crash almost derailed that career in 1978, forcing Massé to leave vocal group Manhattan Transfer. But she was back after two years of recovery and has continued to perform and teach throughout the country, releasing occasional solo albums and recording as a backup singer with such artists as her Transfer colleague Janis Siegel.

The two are once again working together in the all-female vocal trio JaLaLa — the name an amalgamation of Siegel, Massé and other vocalist Lauren Kinhan’s first names. Massé is also planning a new solo album for later in the year, working with arranger and accompanist Hubert “Tex” Arnold. According to Massé, it is in these collaborations that she has been luckiest of all.

JaLaLa: Janis Siegel, Laurel Massé and Lauren Kinhan

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany

How Much: $24

More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org

“I’ve always been very fortunate in my accompanists, from Dean Rolando and Vinnie Martucci up in Woodstock, and now Tex Arnold — I’m so lucky,” Massé said from her home in New York City, a week before heading out with JaLaLa for a one-off date at The Egg Saturday night.

“I’ve learned so much from them. They’re all very different — all brilliant and kind and funny — so I’ve been always very lucky that way from the very beginning of the Transfer in 1972, from that time on. . . . And perhaps they’ve been a little lucky too.”

Sporadic appearances

And along with the other two members of JaLaLa, Massé is busier than ever. The former Adirondack and Hudson River Valley resident is booked solid with workshops throughout the summer, including teaching slots at Jay Ungar and Molly Mason’s Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp in Woodstock and the Cabaret Conference at Yale University.

Meanwhile, Siegel remains busy with Manhattan Transfer, and Kinhan is a member of New York Voices. Because of these constraints on their time, the trio performs together only sporadically in support of their first album together, a collection of Johnny Mercer pieces titled “That Ol’ Mercer Magic!” The group has the Egg performance and another at Birdland in New York City booked, and that’s it for now.

“It’s very hard to find a window,” Massé said. “The last window we had was in February, when we were able to do three or four little things, and this was our next window.”

Massé and Siegel first came up with the idea for an all-female vocal trio in 2000. The two performed with Manhattan Transfer’s Cheryl Bentyne, who replaced Massé in the group, under the name Moxie for some time. This group also made it to The Egg. Bentyne ended up moving to California and leaving the group, and it was some time before Siegel and Massé found another singer who worked.

“Janis and I sang off and on with several other singers, but we never found the right combination and the right vocal blend, the right mind-set, the right schedule, until we found Lauren Kinhan,” Massé said. “She is perfect in every way — a smart singer, a great group singer, a good songwriter. She had the works.”

When Siegel was asked to produce a tribute to Mercer last year, the project quickly became the debut album for JaLaLa. “That was the thing that made us put our good shoes on and start getting out in front of people.”

Much to choose from

Siegel ended up writing the bulk of the vocal arrangements and making the song choices for the album, with Yaron Gershovsky, Manhattan Transfer’s musical director, handling the musical arrangements. The trio tackle such classic Mercer songs as “Jeepers Creepers,” “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” and a medley of “Moon River” and “Moon Country” with ample room for both ensemble singing and solo showcases for each vocalist.

“The problem with Mercer is what songs you leave out, because he never wrote a bad lyric,” Massé said. “He worked with the finest composers of the day and worked with a lot of different people, so really, what do you leave out? A CD is only so long.”

For Massé, the recording hinged on the natural chemistry within JaLaLa. The recordings took place over the course of one or two months, but actual time spent in the studio added up to only about two weeks.

“Janis and I started singing together when we were 20, and continued very intensely until I had my car accident — and then we didn’t for a while, and then we did again,” Massé said. “It’s so easy to sing with her — I know when she’s going to breathe, I know when she’s going to bend a note, we know each other very well vocally. And Lauren is such a skilled group singer, so it became very easy for the three of us to sing together. When you have great tunes, great arrangements, ease in singing, a nice studio and a good lunch, you kind of can’t beat it.”

Live, the group obviously covers Mercer, but stretches to include standards, contemporary songs and some originals.

“We run the gamut — we have some Boswell Sisters pieces, stuff from the late ’20s, early ’30s, but we also do some very contemporary stuff,” Massé said. “Lauren’s a skilled songwriter, so she gets to do her thing, and I do my thing. We have some surprises up our sleeve that are not necessarily written by Mr. Mercer.”

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