Atlantic City's Harvey Mason has been a vital force on the music scene for past 35 years
EVEN IF YOU'VE NEVER heard of the band Fourplay, there's a good chance you've heard music by the individual members of the pop-jazz quartet. Consistently staying at the top of the contemporary jazz charts over the course of its 13-year existence, this supergroup of Los Angeles studio musician veterans has appeared, individually and together, with the best of the best in a variety of musical genres over the years.
Pianist Bob James, who gave us the theme song to Taxi among many other notable crossover recordings, has teamed with almost every contemporary jazz giant imaginable over the past couple decades. The list includes the late Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, Earl Klugh and countless others. Anyone will recognize the playing of Fourplay's bassist Nathan East who has recorded with and backed a multitude of top-notch acts over the years including Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and Elton John. Guitarist Larry Carlton, also a reputable session man, was a former member of The Crusaders and appears on more classic albums than can be listed here. Billy Joel's Piano Man, Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark and Steely Dan's Katy Lied come to mind. (Don't forget the theme song to Hill Street Blues!)
Rounding out the quartet is Atlantic City native Harvey Mason. The drummer, composer, programmer, arranger and Atlantic City High School grad has lived in Los Angeles for 34 years and has made a name for himself as one of the most respected studio musicians in the business. He estimates that he's played on way over a thousand albums and has contributed to countless films and commercials. Currently he's excited about Fourplay's latest album, Journey, as well as a solo record, With All My Heart, both of which were released earlier this year. Mason tells AC Weekly he's pumped to come back to town for Fourplay's performance this Saturday night at Trump Marina's Grand Cayman Theater.
"I've been back [to Atlantic City] before and it was a little disappointing because I didn't see many friends from the old days," says Mason, 54. "It seems like there's more of an effort this year to get the word out. I think this year it will be a little more special, more people from my old days -- classmates and friends -- will come out."
Playing in Atlantic City Saturday night will not be something new for Mason, who developed his musical skills at an early age in the clubs on Kentucky Avenue. As soon as he could hold a pair of sticks, Mason began playing drums, taking after his father who played the drums in an Army Band (one of his father's band mates was the late, local historian Sid Trusty). By the time he was 15, Mason was playing in most of the jazz clubs that once lit up Kentucky Avenue. He would later compose and record the song, "K.Y. and the Curb" for his 1976 Arista album, Earth Mover.
Developing his chops sitting in with bands at such historic places as Club Harlem, the 500 Club, the Jockey Club and Steel Pier, Mason learned the ins and outs of playing jazz. Soon he had his own trio at the Wonder Gardens with organist Danny Fogel.
"Musicians heard me play and they started calling me for jobs," remembers Mason. "I worked at the Jockey Club regularly and that was a good job with the band there. I played in Johnny D's band there for a full season, then I was just subbing around."
He also learned a lot from playing with members of the local musicians union, who Mason says would invite him to rehearsals on a regular basis. Mason recalls that even at that time, during the early '60s, there were two musicians' unions in town.
"When I started there were two music unions," says Mason. "There was the black union and the white union."
Leaving the Jersey shore to attend college in New England, Mason set out to become the best session drummer he possibly could. Even before going away to Boston's Berklee College of Music, where he would stay for a year before enrolling in the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, Mason knew he wanted to be studio musician.
"When I went to college I went with the idea of learning as much about different kinds of music as possible," says Mason. "When I was in high school I read an article about studio musicians and I made up my mind that that's what I wanted to do. So I had a real purpose in college, making sure I was a good classical player and a good all-kinds-of player."
After graduating in 1970, Mason toured with Errol Garner for six weeks, then took a job with George Shearing and moved to California where he has lived ever since. Within a year his dream of working in the L.A. music studios was beginning to come true. Jazz, funk, R&B, pop ... it didn't matter. From albums by jazz greats Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd and Joe Henderson to recordings by other kinds of greats such as Earth, Wind and Fire, James Brown and Aretha Franklin, Mason played on hundreds of sessions in the 1970s, often crossing paths with his current band mates. By the time the '80s and '90s rolled around, you'd need a computer to keep track of all of his appearances. He also worked on films like The Color Purple, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Batman Forever, to name a few.
It's hard, Mason says, to remember all of the sessions, let alone pick his favorite.
"Oh, my goodness. It's hard to pick one. I've done so many ... I love Carnegie Hall with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, that was a great session, live. Seal was a good record. Working with Streisand ... it's hard for me to pick one."
Mason, whose sister still lives in Pleasantville, says he hasn't even listened to some of the albums that he's played on over the years.
"A lot of them that I played on I never heard," says Mason. "One day I'll have to sit back and listen to them."
Although Mason doesn't spend as much time in the studio now as he once did -- "I used to work every day and never go on the road, just stay in the studio," he says -- he still does session work and film music. Even this month, bookending the live dates he has scheduled with Fourplay, he's working on two different film scores.
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