Archives for the month of: July, 2013

Playlist: Harvey Mason – Jazz’s tightest drummer

harvey-mason4

Harvey Mason

We all have our ‘go to’ answers when someone asks, “who’s your favourite drummer?” My mind always goes to the rock genre after which it takes about 0.3 seconds to arrive at Keith Moon (Bonham and Peart are a close second and third). But if asked who my favourite jazz drummer was, I’d probably run through my relatively short mental Rolodex and offer up Art Blakey, mostly because Buddy Rich is too predictable and Gene Krupa was more known for big band than modern jazz.

However, I’ve recently discovered the man behind the drum kit in many of my favourite jazz and jazz fusion recordings. Now I have my stock answer:

Harvey Mason is my favourite jazz drummer.

To celebrate his breadth and illuminate an astounding career (still in progress), I thought I’d share a short playlist.

    1. Donald Byrd, Street Lady, Flight Time (Blue Note, 1973)
    2. Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters, Watermelon Man (Columbia, 1973)+
    3. Grover Washington Jr., A Secret Place, Love Makes it Better (Kudu, 1976)*
    4. Donald Byrd, Stepping into Tomorrow, Stepping into Tomorrow (Blue Note, 1975)
    5. Bobbi Humphrey, Blacks and Blues, Harlem River Drive (Blue Note, 1973)
    6. George Benson, Breezin’, Breezin’ (Warner Bros., 1976)
    7. Harvey Mason, Earthmover, K.Y. and the Curve (Arista, 1976)*
    8. Harvey Mason, Funk in a Mason Jar, Til You Take My Love (Arista, 1977)*+
    9. Bob James, Three, Westchester Lady (CTI, 1976)
    10. Fourplay, Esprit de Four, Sonnymoon (Concord Music, 2012)

*Song co-written by Mason; +Song arranged by Mason

Track 1 is Donald Byrd’s “Flight Time,” which features Mason in what I think is one of the greatest jazz drum lines ever. Like the other Mizell Brothers’ produced tracks on this list (nos. 4 & 5), Mason provides a tight and driving backdrop to an easy going groove.

As if working with Byrd and the Mizells wasn’t impressive enough, in the same year Mason also appeared on Herbie Hancock’s seminal album, Head Hunters. Not only is he responsible for the steady hand we hear on the monster jazz/funk fusion hit, “Chamaeleon” but he also arranged and performed on “Watermelon Man,” track 2 of our tour. Mason brought innovative funk treatments to the song, which had been in Hancock’s repertoire for 10 years before this most famous version was recorded.

Continuing his association with those who would become synonymous with jazz fusion and jazz-funk, Mason appeared on Grover Washington Jr.’s classic, Mister Magic. Track 3 on my playlist is a lesser known track from Mason’s stint with Washington: “Love Makes it Better.” Mason penned this song, which suits both his and Washington’s style. Mason’s rhythm track grounds the song, allowing the Washington to soar freely in his solos.

Tracks 4 & 5 are from the golden era of Larry and Fonce Mizell at Blue Note Records. Donald Byrd’s “Stepping into Tomorrow” and Bobbi Humphrey’s “Harlem River Drive” are both classic Mizell Brothers tunes. One of the reasons they endure today is because of Mason’s performance. “Stepping into Tomorrow,” with its menacing bassline, rolls along with the Mizell’s lush arrangements filling in the spaces. The song’s foundation is Mason’s flawless and relentless rhythm track. On “Harlem River Drive,” Mason does what great drummers do most of the time, which is play well without being noticed.

George Benson’s classic recording of the Bobby Womack song, “Breezin'” is track 6. It’s hard to find a more iconic track from the seventies. Moving away from more traditional jazz or jazz-funk arrangements, George Benson broke new ground with this release, crossing over into pop whilst applying jazz instrumentation. Again, Mason’s playing underpins Benson’s melodic guitar lines and keeps the listener engaged throughout the nearly six minute track.

earthmoverMason’s solo career is as long and distinguished as his time as a sideman. The next two tracks come from an era of soulful funk and disco which saw Mason branch out into popular music with vocals and higher production values. Tracks 7 & 8, “K.Y. and the Curve” and “Til You Take My Love” are joyful tracks incorporating the best from that era, including great string arrangements, funk-inspired guitar lines, and ensemble vocals (including Mason himself on “K.Y. and the Curve”).

masonjarTrack 9 is Bob James’ broadly recognizable, “Westchester Lady,” another anthem from the 1970’s. Mason’s timing is impeccable, interplaying with James’ stacatto keyboards and his punchy horn section.

Closing the playlist is a track that returns us to the jazz fusion genre, which Mason has helped define through the decades. Fourplay’s “Sonnymoon” (track 10) is more straight ahead jazz than much of their repertoire. Mason’s playing is as tight as ever, despite having just become a ‘senior citizen’ at 65 when this track was released in 2012.

Mason’s career continues today. He will be recording a new CD this year under his “Chamaeleon Project” monicker.

Who’s your favourite jazz drummer?

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Commentary: My Writing Process

A reader of one of my posts asked a simple question that made me think.

The question was:

I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I’ve had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out there. I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints?

The short answer is that I don’t force myself to write. I come to writing as a release rather than confront myself with it as a chore. Admittedly, this is easy to say for a ‘writing hobbyist’ like myself but not so realistic for someone who is tasked with writing, like a student, an academic, or even a professional writer.

As true as that is about myself, it doesn’t really answer the reader’s question. In fact, I do have something to share about how I overcome writer’s block or more accurately, avoid it altogether. The answer is in my writing process.

My 4 Stages of Writing

Stage I: Ideation – What shall I write about?

This stage is the most amorphous because it happens throughout everyday life, usually when I’m left alone with my thoughts. During an afternoon jog, in the car on my commute, idle moments. Deciding what to write about for me has been made simpler by my conscious decision to focus my blog on music, with some tangents for books and other arts & culture topics. This is a helpful guardrail, channelling my thoughts toward a theme that drives my curiosity and ideas.

Stage II: Composition – Forming a more concrete outline and perhaps composing lead sentences or key phrases in my mind

I don’t think I’ve ever started to write without having at least one phrase pre-composed in my head. These phrases compel me to sit down and start writing, like a song you can’t get out of your head until you hear it played.

I also try to have a rough mental outline, even if a partial one. Outlines are another way to get you started, as long as you’re not hung up on making them whole and perfect.

Stage III: Execution – The physical act of writing

Now at the keyboard, this is where the ideas and pre-composed components of the piece become a first draft. A lot of composition happens in this stage, and sometimes ideation. In fact, I quite enjoy starting a piece without knowing how I’m going to tie my topics together at the end. I try not to dwell on sentence structure, grammar, and word choice at this stage. I just want to get through my arguments.

Learning to avoid pre-mature critique has helped me a great deal. In the midst of my first draft, I used to read what I’d written and start judging it. This is fatal to the central goal of execution, which is to get your draft done. I often finish my draft with elements that I have great contempt for. Rather than deleting them in a fit of self-criticism, I let them be. Editing will come soon enough.

Stage IV: Editing – Refining, re-writing, re-organizing

I normally edit at least one day after writing. Nothing lifts a writer’s fog like a good night’s sleep and some distance. Coming back to my draft with a fresh mind, I hack away, re-reading several times, sometimes abandonning the ideas and phrases I thought were so great early in my process. Although they’re my words, as an editor, I treat them as if they were written by a stranger.

Once I’m satisfied with my final copy, I’m ready to “publish.” Sites like WordPress make this an incredibly easy task. Publishing at the touch of a button is so commonplace that one wonders why it is more significant than sending an email. For me, it represents a milestone, an achievement. No matter how small and no matter if anyone ends up reading it, I’ve gone through my process and created something satisfying.

Writing is a personal pursuit for me. Sharing it through this blog is one way I let it go and move on to the next idea.

Album Review: The Man, Omar, Shanachie Entertainment, 2013

omar-the-man-lp-lead It’s not everyday a bass clarinet is used to drive a hooky bassline on a monster R&B hit, as is the case with “The Man,” the title track from Omar’s 7th studio album. U.K. R&B/Soul veteren, Omar a.k.a Omar Christopher Lyefook) has mercifully returned after a seven year recording absence.

Basslines, including the obscure-yet-effective woodwind on “The Man,” emerge as Omar’s calling card throughout this fine album. “Simplify” is driven by stacatto flute sounds. “Come on speak to me” is carried by a hard-working double bass.

The Man also features several collaborations including former Jamiroquai bassist Stuart Zender playing on “Ordinary Day,” a bossa-inspired track punctuated by Omar’s vocal ad lib and pulsing with energy thanks to some fantastic horn and string arrangements. Another collaboration is with former The Who and D’Angelo bassist, Pino Palladino doing a renewed version of Omar’s most popular hit, “There’s nothing like this.” This version is jazzier than the original, with more  swing and some nice Rhodes work by Omar himself. The bassline is true to the original classic, not giving Palladino much space to play. Nice as this version is, it struck me as an odd choice, re-working a song whose original still stands up today.

Still, the entire album is pleasing, like a stroll on a fine day. Each track delights with its unique bassline. Omar’s flawlesss vocals are aptly front-and-centre in every mix, and the innovative instrumentation gives the music a freshness that sets it apart from other recent releases in the R&B, Soul, and Jazz-Funk genre’s.