Last month Jazz London Radio had the opportunity to interview drum legend and composer Harvey Mason. Harvey was in London with his group for two dates at Ronnie Scotts as part of the London Jazz Festival held every November in prestigious venues throughout London. I met Harvey at his hotel in the heart of Central London before he was due to have the sound check. Harvey was relaxed and in good form, and why not? It is always a privilege to do a job you love and tour the world playing for the people. I didn’t get to the gig at Ronnie Scotts but did go to the sound check and the band sounded great, I am sure the punters got their money’s worth that night.
Thanks Harvey for being interviewed by Jazz London Radio today. You have had a long and varied career, my first question is how did you get into playing music and what were your early influences?
Thanks for interviewing me here in London, the weather’s beautiful. Well you know, I think when I was very young I was crawling around playing with pots and pans and my mother recognised I had some talent, she would get me to play and through that I gained some proficiency. My elementary school had a strong music education programme, and I had a choice to play drums so I chose to learn to play drums in 7th grade and that was it, the rest is history. I stuck with it and kept playing not thinking I would become a professional musician but it was just something I could do very well.
Were there any other musicians in your family?
My father played in an army band and my mother sang in a church choir, she had some musical instincts and that was about it. I was fortunate to be gifted in music at a very early age and was always deciphering or creating music in my head.
That’s interesting because a few weeks ago I interviewed Japanese piano player Makoto Kuriya and he gave a similar answer that there was no real musical talent in the family; his father played semi pro but wasn’t good enough to make a career so in the end did a nine to five job. Then later he would ask Makoto, “so when are you going to quit music and get a proper job?!” And when he saw his son was actually really good and making a career he realised there was no point in asking that question (laughter).
I have a copy of your new album Chameleon and you have reworking of classic songs like Blackfrost, Places and Spaces etc. What was the inspiration behind this project?
Every project I do I am looking for a new angle or something fresh or a new approach which might be of interest to people. In doing so, it was suggested by a senior A&R person that we delve back into the archives and find songs that I recorded that were very popular and big records. We went through all of these albums and chose a few songs we thought were really special and would make a great collection and that’s how we planned upon doing it. But then we wanted to do something a bit different, not go back and try and recreate it, we wanted to try different arrangements and incorporate younger guys; guys who weren’t even born yet, bring a little freshness. The musicians I chose were really talented musicians, I had to push them to give a little bit more of themselves and not try and copy the sound.
It’s a great album.
You have been involved in a variety of projects over the years, such as producing Seawind and being a composer. In the pop world, drummers are often viewed as not having much to offer other than keeping time. Yet in jazz there are a number of drummers and percussionists who have been incredible band leaders such as yourself, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Narada Michael Walden, Peter Erskine and many others. Why do you think jazz is so different?
I would beg to differ because there are a lot of pop drummers who have written hit songs so it’s not exclusive to jazz. But I think jazz drummers have the opportunity to stand out and become leaders. From a long time ago the music is so expressive and creative; and drumming is a critical part of that, you can really stand out and write; drummers have been writing for a long time, some of the best pop producers are drummers because they often have the capacity to listen carefully to the overall scope of the music. That’s what I attribute it to; being a leader like in the tradition of an Art Blakey and these guys
So they kind of inspired you
Oh yes, I never thought I would be a leader
That’s interesting because I read an interview with Billy Cobham a few months ago and he said back in the early 1970s Atlantic records offered him a contract and he had never thought of becoming a leader until that point, and then he has a band with people like the Brecker Brothers and John Abercrombie.
Clive Davis (Arista Records) asked me why don’t you make a record, I said yeah I have some songs and that was the beginning of it. Although I hardly ever toured, I just made the albums because I didn’t want to restrict my studio work.
So when did you start touring with your bands?
Well I did one or two dates here and there but for this new record I’ve been touring much more. I was a touring musician more with the band Fourplay so that was kind of the beginning of my touring career.
Fascinating; and I do take your point because many of my favourite musicians like Stewart Copeland who is a great drummer and produces as well, then there’s Bobby Colomby. Narada has won grammy awards for producing. When I said that I meant there is a perception out there as opposed to being my personal opinion.
The perception is drummers are there just to keep the rhythm. People ask me “you wrote that?” “Do you use drums to write a song?” “How does a drummer write a song?” I get that all the time (laughs).
I call this the Barbara Dennerlein question. What is jazz for you?
Jazz is highly creative, it frees the soul. I see an immediate attachment and effect it has on people and when I play jazz I think of nothing else; it’s relevant, it lights up my mind. It’s great when you create you don’t know what’s going to happen and every day is different; to be able to think that quickly and move that quickly and transition with more information to create…
I suppose it is indescribable for people who do not play in that idiom
People that are fans recognise and marvel at what’s going on. You see that a lot in Fourplay, it’s not traditional jazz but its creative music.
That’s interesting because when I saw you play with your band years ago at the Jazz Café, my friend was commenting a lot on how much she admired the interaction between the musicians and the love between the band, she’s not even much of a jazz fan but recognised that.
Which direction do you see jazz and creative music going in the next few years?
I see a lot of young and creative talented people being introduced to the music and taking it in different directions with fusion; they are taking classic jazz and fusing it with other sounds and influences. You see in live audiences kids getting up and dancing to the jazz. I have Marc DeClive Low in the band and he has a fresh approach to playing; I see all of these inputs into jazz having a much wider audience, the future is very bright.
That’s good to hear and I think I share your opinion, one of my presenters Chris Hodgkins who was the Director of Jazz services, has been playing of a lot of newer artists and young talent which the public might not be aware of yet.
What does the future hold for Harvey Mason?
Well I hope to keep getting better as a player and be exposed to new ideas which I can develop. And play as long as I feel can contribute, one day I might sit on the side-lines and appreciate what I did but playing with these young guys I feel energised and can play for a while yet.
Thanks for your time Harvey and thanks for being interviewed by Jazz London Radio
Thanks for having me on Jazz London Radio, and good luck with the station.
Thanks, appreciate that.