Harvey Mason - Chameleon

Harvey Mason
Harvey Mason Chameleon.jpg
Click on CD cover
to listen or purchase

Harvey Mason’s nickname is “Chameleon,” and I definitely get the appropriateness of deploying the moniker as the title of the drumming legend’s latest album. The nickname comes from the ease with which Mason moves into different musical genres. Jazz, most notably jazz-fusion is where Mason earned his name.

A generation of fusion and contemporary jazz fans know Mason from his work with Fourplay. However, plenty of pop, R&B and hip-hop artists employed Mason, either as a session musician/sideman or via sample. That list includes Barbara Streisand, James Brown, Jennifer Hudson, Michael Jackson, The Notorious B.I.G. and Herbie Hancock. The Hancock connection accounts for the second reason why Mason wears the Chameleon nickname so well. Mason played on Hancock’s 1974 fusion masterpiece Head Hunters, and helped co-write that album’s best-known song, “Chameleon.” 

Harvey Mason’s nickname is “Chameleon,” and I definitely get the appropriateness of deploying the moniker as the title of the drumming legend’s latest album. The nickname comes from the ease with which Mason moves into different musical genres. Jazz, most notably jazz-fusion is where Mason earned his name.

A generation of fusion and contemporary jazz fans know Mason from his work with Fourplay. However, plenty of pop, R&B and hip-hop artists employed Mason, either as a session musician/sideman or via sample. That list includes Barbara Streisand, James Brown, Jennifer Hudson, Michael Jackson, The Notorious B.I.G. and Herbie Hancock. The Hancock connection accounts for the second reason why Mason wears the Chameleon nickname so well. Mason played on Hancock’s 1974 fusion masterpiece Head Hunters, and helped co-write that album’s best-known song, “Chameleon.” 

That cut is just one of the songs on the new album Chameleon to which Mason had a previous connection. A full six of the album’s 10 tracks feature songs where Mason served as drummer/percussionist, so Chameleon has the feel of a career retrospective.

The title track seems to be a good place to begin even though that tune is the album’s last song. The cut opens with a bit of a history lesson: Hancock’s remake of his hard bop hit “Watermelon Man” from the Head Hunters album featured Bill Summers whistling into an empty beer bottle to create an airy, flute like sound similar to that of the African instrument, the hindewhu. Summers adds that element to the start of this very, very funky remake, bringing things full circle. 

Mason’s drumming manages to stand out while also providing a platform for some inspired saxophone creativity. Song after song on Chameleon  will have plenty of people exclaiming, “He played on that, too?” Indeed, Mason lent his skills to Grover Washington, Jr. and Donald Byrd and tracks from those two departed jazz giants appear on Chameleon.

The record opens with the Grover tune “Black Forest,” and features a thick funk bass line and some firey saxophone work by Kamasi Washington. “Places and Spaces” sports a more melancholy arrangement than Byrd’s 1975 original that included Mason on the drums. The original had an ebullient feel from the string arrangement to Byrd’s flugelhorn. Mason’s reimagined version plays like an acknowledgement that the places and spaces we’ve seen in recent years might have left us a bit less idealistic.

Mason did not play on the Quincy Jones tune “If I Ever Lose This Heaven,” the great duet between Minnie Riperton and Leon Ware featured on Jones’ 1974 album Body Heat. But Mason’s updated version endows the cut with more of a contemporary R&B/neo-soul starting with the interplay between the bass and Mason’s drums that open the track right down to Chris Turner’s silky vocals and the shuffle/march bass line.

Mason admits in promotional interviews that younger artists have gravitated to the music he made in the 1970s with Hancock, Dave Grusin, Washington, Patrice Rushen, Bobby Hutchersn and Byrd. Of course, Gen Xers and Millennials are hip-hop kids who never let a dope beat or hot track slip by. Mason played on and created more than his share, and if Chameleon proves anything, it’s that these cuts remain durable and that THE Chameleon is every ready to adapt. Recommended

By Howard Dukes

 

Leave a comment!