In the 1970s drummer Harvey Mason was one of the top session musicians. A graduate of the Berklee School of Music and then of the New England Conservatory, Mason was well schooled and immediately put his knowledge base into practice when he moved to Los Angeles in 1970 and became the drummer in George Shearing’s band.
As early as 1973, Mason had become one of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters groundbreaking band and co-wrote, ‘Chameleon’, while for Grover Washington, he featured throughout on the fusion classic, ‘Mr Magic’. Elsewhere, the percussionist regularly filled in the drumming duties for mid-1970s Blue Note artists such as flautist Bobbi Humphrey and singer Marlena Shaw, and he fitted in just enough time to record on the label with both Donald Byrd and Bobby Hutcherson. Mason also found his way onto the 1975 ‘Mellow Madness’, album for Quincy Jones, the title track of which has become something of a summer rare groove tune of sorts and heavily sampled.
As a leader in his own right, Harvey Mason recorded several albums for the Arista label between 1975 and 1981, and this is what this anthology focuses attention on with excellent liner notes to unravel how his career unfolded. in fact, the Arista connection came about after Mason was invited to play on the Brecker Brothers debut album for the label and label boss Clive Davis enquired as to whether Mason had contemplated a solo career.
Soul fans will always treasure a track that surfaced in 1977 with the lead vocals of Merry Clayton, and that is the unmistakable groove of, ‘Til you take my love’, which has a strong Earth, Wind and Fire influence in the horn section and use of percussion. Arguably, it is Mason’s finest moment in the soul idiom. Another key number is the collective vocal led, ‘Say it again’, from 1979 and this featured the wonderful percussion breakdown of guest musician Sheila E, five years before she hit the big time as part of Prince’s band. A 12″ disco tune, ‘Groovin’ you’, again used collective male vocals and is notable for the inclusion of Ray Parker Jr. on guitar and Richard Tee on keyboards, but for this writer, the catchy, ‘How does it feel’, is the strongest of the dance floor outings. At various times, Harvey Mason, by virtue of his jazz credentials, was able to call upon the talents of the best session musicians in the business. Some of the lesser known songs are among the most interesting, with the mid-tempo, ‘Pack up your bags’, a personal favourite of this writer with veteran Dorothy Ashby on harp (she would record on Stevie Wonder’s, Songs in the key of life’) and Earth, Wind and Fire guitarist, A; McKay. On several tracks, the Seawind Horns are featured and they provide some jazzy context as on the instrumental, ‘The maze’, which is a jazz-fusion oriented piece and with no less than Greg Phillinganes on keyboards (the preferred keyboardist of Michael Jackson).
The second CD has a wonderful and epic eight minute cover of Marvin Gaye’s, ‘What’s goin’ on’, which is a real highlight, arguably the best of any of the jazz-inflected numbers on the anthology. Here, the lengthy intro leads into an epic instrumental take with George Benson on guitar, the late Jorge Dalto on piano, and this was recorded the year after Benson’s epic, Breezin’ album, on which Mason was the featured drummer and also performed on vibes! In an altogether moodier vein, ‘Modaji’, has a strong jazz element equally with the Fender Rhodes of Dave Grusin and the flute playing of Hubert Laws. Upon hearing, ‘When I’m with you’, the sound of George Benson was surely on Harvey Mason’s mind and the version here is a live recorded one, which is an instrumental with the great Motown bassist James Jamerson and featuring guitar solos from both Ray Parker Jr. and Mike Sembello.
Excellent graphics with numerous single label covers, with photos of Mason and various guests round off what is a most a deserved tribute to the production and performance talents of drummer Harvey Mason. Unquestionably one of the unsung heroes of the 1970s.