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Heather Pierson: Lines and Spaces
by George Graham
(Independent release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/18/2019)
Singer-songwriters represents probably the widest stylistic range among popular genres, spanning from solo acoustic guitar-strumming folkies to artists who create elaborate arrangements with influences running from bluegrass to punk. But with some notable exceptions, most singer-songwriters tend to move within a fairly narrow range of styles within their own music, which becomes their trademark sound and which fans come to expect.
This week we have a particularly versatile singer-songwriter who maintains a kind of dual career, as a jazz pianist and playing with a bluegrass influenced group. It’s New Hampshire-based Heather Pierson, who had just released her 12th album on her own called Lines and Spaces. A Missouri native, whose mother was born in Scotland and whose father was a Navy veteran machinist who played the clarinet, Ms. Pierson was surrounded by an eclectic blend of music around her house from rock to classical. At age five, after her family moved to rural Maine, Heather’s father taught her to read music, and the beginnings of piano technique. In her web biography, she says that from the moment she had a chance to play a real piano, that was what she wanted to do with her life. Years of classical lessons followed, she began performing professionally while still in high school, and also was learning improvisation. Her musical dichotomy developed early in her career, playing concurrently with two different groups, a progressive rock band Garagh Mahal, and a country influence group called the North Atlantic Band.
Over the years, Ms. Pierson has released jazzy albums, recordings of new age solo piano, and vocal chant recording. Her creative output diminished after she found herself in an abusive relationship, while she occupied herself as the music director at a church.
In 2010, having reclaimed her life as she says, she resumed her recording career, with some songs based on her experiences, and also working with a jazz group, regularly performing the music from a Charlie Brown Christmas and also assembling the Heather Pierson Acoustic trio, playing bluegrass-influenced music.
The new album is one that combines both facets of Ms. Pierson’s musical persona, with songs that range from Dixieland Jazz to honky-tonk to bluegrass. She is mainly heard on piano, but also plays guitar on the folkier material. Her clear, inviting vocals deliver her crisp, well-written lyrics that often tell stories, including about how her parents met and a poignant story of a friend whose depression led to suicide. She is joined by the members of her Acoustic Trio and her jazz colleagues, including Davy Sturdevant on various string instruments and some trumpet, Shawn Nadeau on acoustic and electric bass, and Craig Bryan on drums and percussion. There are also a couple of guest horn players and essentially a chorus of backing vocalists are brought in a track or two.
Opening is the title piece, Line and Spaces an autobiographical song about how she came to love playing the piano. <<>>
Immediately showing the stylistic contrast embodied in the album is the following piece Goodness Knows, a the life story of a someone who persists despite what life throws in front of her. <<>>
Along the same lyrical line, but with another 180-degree stylistic turn, is the song called Get Up on That Horse Again, which is done as an old fashioned blues-jazz ballad. <<>>
Another autobiographical song is Miami which Ms. Pierson says was inspired by how her parents met and quickly married. <<>>
Ms. Pierson and her colleagues go Dixieland on a great old-fashioned-sounding song called Sad and Sorry whose music setting is a perfect match for the lyrics which also seem from an earlier era. <<>>
A further departure comes on Where Will You Go an almost Vaudeville style song that considers the corporeal aspects after death, i.e. what do you want to happen with your corpse. <<>>
Perhaps the saddest song on the album is Willie based on a friend of Ms. Pierson whose depression led to suicide. <<>>
On the other hand, the most uplifting song the album has to offer is called Yes to Love done in the style of an African American Gospel tune, complete with guest horn players.
Heather Pierson’s new release Lines and Spaces nicely demonstrates the singer-songwriter pianist’s dual musical directions, as a jazzy chanteuse and as a bluegrass and country picker and songstress. She has been maintaining a dual career with recordings that tended to concentrate on one side of the other. This new album nicely combines the two and flows very well, despite the abrupt changes in style from one track to the next. Ms. Pierson holds it together with her appealing vocals, very tasteful musicianship, and lyrical clarity that concentrates more on narrative than poetry.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A” with a satifyingly clean recording, devoid of obvious studio tricks, that captures the different styles well, and enhances the inviting quality of Ms. Pierson’s vocals.
There are a lot of artists who give their fans what they want with a consistent, some would say homogeneous sound. Heather Pierson’s Line and Spaces is anything but that, with a wide-ranging sound but with the consistency in the high quality of the material and performances.
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