An Interview with Harvey Mason
In the ‘Fourfront’ of Smooth Jazz
by S.H. Watkins, Sr.
He’s been hired by everyone from Barbra Streisand to James Brown to Henry Mancini to Herbie Hancock to Reba McIntyre to Sergio Mendes to the London Symphony Orchestra. He has played on well over 1,000 recordings and hundreds of film scores, won four 1st place plaques from Modern Drummer magazine’s annual studio poll and has been the first call drummer for the Academy Awards ceremonies on 16 occasions. We got this founding member of the contemporary jazz “super group” Fourplay to take a minute from his schedule to sit down and talk with JazzUSA.
JazzUSA: Hi Harvey. I just heard the new CD a couple of days ago, and it seems to be somewhat of a throwback to the old Fourplay, it feels like you’ve recaptured the feel that made you so hugely successful at the start.
HM: I think there’s a new excitement with the band, and that may be what you’re speaking of. We’ve switched labels and we’ve finally all figured out how to play together with Larry (Carlton) and Larry’s an integral part of the band now. His voice has become one with the band and that’s created a whole new excitement. We tried some new things recording this time because we’ve always wanted to continue the growth and push buttons a little bit, so we tried a different approach. I love this record and I think is has a freshness, and I people will enjoy it, it will pique a lot of interest.
JazzUSA: Would it be fair to say that the change in the band after the fourth CD was due to a feeling that you needed to keep putting out the same feel rather than expanding the sound?
HM: We weren’t really striving to get a ‘feel’, we were just doing what came naturally actually. Maybe we weren’t pushing the envelope but I think a lot of that had to with the Record company not really letting people know, not pushing like the first three records. The last record they took it for granted that people would automatically pick it up and that didn’t happen.
JazzUSA: Like a lot of groups now, I notice that you’re collaborating with some of the younger producers and performers. Notably Babyface…
HM: Babyface actually co-wrote a song with Nathan (East).
JazzUSA: It there a tour in the works?
HM: (laughing) We’re on tour for most of June, off in July, then touring again in August, September, October and November.
JazzUSA: Let’s go back a little bit… You were on the B3-master Charlie Earland’s album ‘Leaving This Planet’. Any memories of that time?
HM: I met Charles when I was a kid in Atlantic City in the 60’s, probably ’64. I used to sit in with him and it was a lot of fun, he was a very swinging organ player. He had a hit in the 60’s called ‘Daily Double’ and another called ‘I love you more..’ that was on all of the juke boxes. I had actually been recording quite a while before I did that record with Charles. I was pretty popular and getting calls to do all kinds of records, and that time around our relationship was rekindled, reestablished when we did ‘Leaving’. I actually went on the road a little bit with Charles in ’65.
JazzUSA: What about your collaborations with George Benson, he was on your ‘Earth Mover’ CD, right?
HM: He was also on ‘Funk in a Mason Jar’. I did George’s records, and he reciprocated.
JazzUSA: Any plans for future solo work?
HM: My last solo work was two years ago, and that wad nominated for a Grammy, the name of the album was called Ratamacue. I’m in the process of doing a new record now.
JazzUSA: Fourplay has a new record deal, are the individual artists tied to that deal as well?
HM: BOb and Larry are still with Warner, and my new record is going to be on BMG. Nathan doesn’t have a solo deal yet.
JazzUSA: What’s it like working with such a great ensemble of players.
HM: What we did this time, we wrote six songs in the studio. ‘Heartfelt’ was written on Valentine’s day by Bob, written that morning. Bob’s amazing like that, and we had nothing planned to record that day. Bob said ‘I wrote this son, I’m not sure it will fit the band but let’s try it’. We ran it down once and said ‘it’s ready, Let’s record it!’ And we recorded it. It was so special that when we were looking for titles for the CD I said that song should be the title. This CD was in fact really heartfelt, everything came from the heart and we were really using our hearts to create the music.
We also wrote four songs together in the studio where we were just jammin’ and everyone added something to it. Bob and I wrote a song called ‘Tally Ho’ in about 20 minutes, can you believe that. Then we issued a challenge to Larry and Nathan to write a song in that time. They wrote a great song ‘Goin’ Back Home’ but it took them an hour and 20 minutes. Everything was inspired, there were challenges and we just worked together, it was such a great feeling. We usually just write our songs and bring them in, then each guy produces his song. Here we worked a lot at creating songs on the spot. It was really different and Larry really became an integral part of the band, he really showed ihs versatility. I think we captured some of the best of Larry Carlton that’s been on record.
JazzUSA: Well, the synergy certainly shows though, perhaps you should always do it that way, the CD doesn’t feel ‘canned’ like a lot of today’s smooth jazz.
HM: I would say that Bob and myself were in the forefront of this entire smooth jazz format, and i’m going all the way back to the days when I started doing all of Blue Note’s sessions. And I’ve evolved, I mean was at the forefront of all those type of crossover records. I did all those records coming up, George and Bob, those records with Donald Byrd, and all those were big records at the time.
Being at the forefront of that whole format, we sort of set the stage, but it’s taken on a different musical angle as I see it. We could all play, we all had individual voices. Now the music is pretty bland and you don’t know one player from the other, there isn’t very much personality in the records as I see it. But that’s what has become of smooth jazz, a lot of these guys have taken on the characteristics of the earlier guys and tried to promote that.
The reason why Fourplay stood out was because they were four distinct voices that came together and made a very unique sound, and I think that sound has always been there, always been evident in Fourplay. There is a sound and synergy with Fourplay that’s unmatched with any other group, there were some other groups that tried to emulate our success but unsuccessfully. All the players in Fourplay have participated in so much music, have so much music history, and they are all such great guys that are giving and listening. There’s love amongst the guys, we all get along so well, and that’s the ingredient that makes us special.
The players are all professionally trained and have worked with so many musical giants, jazz giants. There’s a lot of history and depth there, and that what separates us from today’s ‘smooth jazz’. Our records don’t fit into the ‘smooth jazz’ category of today because there is such a deep sense of harmony that is done in such a way that it is transparent. If you’re a real musician, you realize it, and it can be contagious. I think it has created a sound that is very unique and non typical smooth jazz. It’s non threatening and filled with a lot of great music.
JazzUSA: It sort of defies the standard labels.
HM: I guess those titles are marketing labels, and ‘smooth’ is better than ‘rough’, but we didn’t think about categories. We just made a record that we like, we’re making music for the ages. We want to make music that people will hear and love for along time. I hope that the records continue to sell and will be recycled for many years to come.
JazzUSA: I’m sure it will. You’ve been a part of great music all my life personally, and I’d like to thank you.
HM: Thank you so much for your support.