Listening to music is great therapy. Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to interview some of the world’s finest jazz musicians. They talk about their careers in detail and recent projects. Here is an interview with the gifted drummer, Harvey Mason.
For two decades, the contemporary jazz quartet known as Fourplay has enjoyed consistent artistic and commercial success by grafting elements of R&B, pop and a variety of other sounds to their unwavering jazz foundations. In the course of a dozen recordings – six of which have climbed to the top of Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Album charts – the Supergroup, which consists of multi-faceted virtuoso guitarist Chuck Loeb, keyboardist Bob James, bassist/vocalist Nathan East and drummer/percussionist Harvey Mason, who has continued to explore the limitless dimensions of jazz while at the same time appealing to a broad mainstream audience.
Fourplay has a history of making great music! Their debut album sat atop Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart for thirty-four weeks, leading to a platinum album, three subsequent gold discs, a Soul Train Music Award and 10 Grammy nominations, to date.
Now celebrating their 20th anniversary, Fourplay has it all: history, respectability, longevity and credits. Fourplay’s credits as individuals and as a band range from Sarah Vaughn and Stan Getz to Michael Jackson and Phil Collins, and from Quincy Jones and Chet Baker to Barry White and Bob Dylan.
Keyboardist Bob James is arguably one of the three true inventors of contemporary jazz, the composer if one of the most recognizable TV themes ever (Taxi), as well as one of the most sampled artists in the world. DrummerHarvey Mason has provided the beat for some of the most iconic and important million selling jazz records of all time including Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, George Benson and Grover Washington Jr. Bassist Nathan Easthas provided tracks for and toured with some of the most important artists in the world and is a composer of platinum selling songs. He also played both Clinton Inaugurations and President Obama’s inaugural celebration. Guitarist Chuck Loeb is also the composer of one if the most recognized news themes ever written – CNN, as well as a plethora of other TV shows, in addition to a string of #1 hit songs as an artist and producer.
The latest project Let’s Touch the Sky is Fourplay’s twelth CD to date. Guest vocalists Ruben Studdard and Anita Baker appear on the soulful “Love TKO” and the dreamlike “You’re My Thrill,” respectively. Studdard was recruited by East, after the two had appeared together in a live performance in Washington, DC. “They were filming a television special,” East recalls. “There was a break to reload the cameras, and I just started playing the bass line of ‘Love TKO.’ Ruben stepped up to the microphone to sing, and everyone in the room just stopped. I knew right then that we needed to have him sing this song on a Fourplay record, and when we asked him, he was very much up for it. The whole thing just came together so easily.”
Harvey Mason who has been with the group since its inception began taking formal drum lessons at age 7, playing in school bands and finally buying his first drum set at the age of 16. Mason continued his musical education first at the Berklee School of Music, then on full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, studying performance, composing, arranging, percussion and mallets.
“Time has done nothing to dull the edge,” said Mason. “The band continues to explore new ways to reach for the next level of musicianship and creativity. “Let’s Touch The Sky” is the perfect title for where we are right now,” he says. “In some ways, bringing someone new into the fold has made us a new band. It opens up new opportunities and new potential, and we want to see how high we can take it.”
Mason sits down and talks with us about the new blood in the group. He provides insight on the Supergroup as well as his musical career.
“I am so excited to be back,” said Mason.”I started with Fourplay in 1991. We now have a new guitarist, Chuck Loeb. Loeb brings new energy to the band and it feels like we are starting all over again. Chuck is a great guitarist and composer. The CD ‘Let’s Touch the Sky’ has so many good tracks on it.”
According to Mason the band is a democracy. He said, “We all vote on musicians and we vote on what songs are going to be played first, second, all the way down the line. “Let’s Touch the Sky” is not traditional. It is creative, romantic, eclectic, melodic, and thought provoking. Anita Baker sounds like a jazz vocalist and Ruben Studdard reminds me of Teddy Pendergrass. We were not following anyone else. We are trying to create a new path. It is adventurous, upbeat with catchy melodies. It is definantly Fourplay.”
Musically, Harvey Mason is one of the most sought after drummers on the scene. He received immeasurable preparation for orchestral work from the legendary Vic Firth with the Boston Symphony.
“I played jingles, I played commercials, I played records – R&B, country western, jazz, pop,” Mason said. “I did TV shows and movies. I covered a lot. I did live. I did the Academy Awards show for twenty-five years as well. Yes, it is great music.”
Besides working with Fourplay, Mason has been working on a “little project” called the Chamelon Band.
“I have gone back and recreated the music that I recorded with Herbie Hancock,” Mason said. I never toured with that band. That is why my resume is so short. It has always been in demand to hear me play that music, so I have been planning and writing. In addition to that, I played in Japan in December with the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.”
Mason who has worked on countless films including: Mission Impossible, The Color Purple, For Colored Girls, Little Mermaid, the Lion King, Speed Racer, Ratatouille 1, 2 and 3, testifies that being a diverse musician has been the key to his success.
Mason said, “There was always some kind of music happening and I was always in the center of it.” “As I played, I would see how a lot of drummers who played only one type of music who were in it. After they played, they were gone.”
“Ratatouille was my most recent animation project, “Mason said. “It was great working with a 75-piece orchestra. We worked for seven or eight days. The music was all written out and you go in and read it immediately and they may make changes. You are playing literally what is written. There is not too much room for interpretation. It was almost like playing in a classical orchestra. I enjoy playing all kinds of music and that is why I ended up with a diverse career with diverse music. But, I enjoyed playing that music. I did the Lion King. … That was with Al and them… I learned a long time ago to adapt. When I look at my resume now, it kind of stuns me a little bit. I wasn’t thinking about it at all.”
While his work has been sampled by Notorious BIG and TI, some of Mason’s most memorable performances include a rehearsal with Frank Sinatra and a recording session with The Godfather of Soul James Brown.
“As a kid I loved James Brown and to get the call to work with him was amazing” Mason said. “We worked together in Los Angeles in the 80s. We were in the recording studio together on Lauder and 5th Avenue all on one stage. He was on one speed working with the band. It was bona fide and amazing!”
“When I was working with Frank Sinatra, we were doing a live show with Sammy Davis,” Mason said. “I knew the music that we were playing, but there was one song that I was playing… I wanted to be on point, so during a lunch break I went to Tower Records and bought an album that contain the song that we were recording, so that I could really study it. I wanted to be spot on with what we were playing with respect to him. By the time I came back to rehearsals that afternoon to play, I knew the music. Back at rehearsal, when it came to that point, I played the song the same way as the recording. Then, he (Frank Sinatra) turned in front of the orchestra around and gave me the big thumbs up.
“That’s recorded and it was fun,” Mason said. “I miss little things like that.”