An unusual musical path led a guitar-and-vocal two-piece 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. “ 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,” he says. Known onstage as Max Hatt/Edda Glass, they’ll play an intimate show — only 50 tickets are available — at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall on Sunday, May 15.
Hatt and vocalist Edda Glass first got together musically in Helena, Mont. There they formed a group called Rio to play bossa nova standards. “We worked 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 financed some demo recordings, and they began writing their own songs. Still, “there really weren’t any venues to play [them] in,” says Glass.
The original songs of the duo “are very inspired by the West, the grandeur of the landscape,” the singer 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.”
Though Hatt’s and Glass’ sound is informed by bossa nova, it 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.”
The guitarist 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, N.M., “Suddenly we started to find audiences who were actually interested in listening to a song start to finish, in a more concert-style environment.” They decided to enter the annual NewSong Contest, hosted by the NewSong music group, whose Southern outpost is based in Asheville. Contest finalists perform at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. There, Hatt and Glass won the grand prize, which included a recording session at Echo Mountain Studios.
Pat Sansone — a member of Americana outfit Wilco and leader of his own project, Autumn Defense — was one of the NewSong judges and quickly became an admirer of Max Hatt/Edda Glass. Sansone signed on to produce the album, titled Ocean of Birds, which will be released May 20. It features local 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 tracks on Ocean of Birds display a conversational quality. “My favorite way to hear them is as solo guitar pieces,” says the singer. “Before they have lyrics, they still have a sort of mystery attached.” But her clear, supple vocals add an extra 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,” says 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 offers an idea of what to expect at the up-close and intimate Isis 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,” the guitarist says.
Glass adds, “The overlap is just in terms of the harmonics and the underlying structure of the songs.”
WHO: Max Hatt/Edda Glass with Pat Sansone
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Sunday, May 15, 5:30 p.m. $12 advance/$15 door
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