Harvey Mason is one of the most recorded musicians in history. His precise, soul-filled drumming has knocked out fans of sophisticated groove playing for more than forty years, on such seminal albums as Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, Charles Earland’s Leaving This Planet, the Brecker Brothers’ eponymous debut, Donald Byrd’s Street Lady, Grover Washington Jr.’s Mister Magic, Lee Ritenour’s First Course and Captain Fingers, and Chick Corea’s The Mad Hatter. Mason’s polished but always unpredictable contributions have propelled Top 40 hits by George Benson, John Legend, Beyoncé,Beck, Bill Withers, and Seal. His silken soulfulness supports a dozen albums by the platinum-selling smoothies Fourplay. And Mason has always been there when you weren’t really listening, supplying the percussive pulse to film soundtracks including The Incredible Hulk, Three Days of the Condor, the Mission: Impossible series, and Throw Momma From the Train.
Mason’s rhythm, his sound, his soul are practically part of our musical subconscious—that perfectly pointed and glossy “Mase” beat, typically elaborated with whip-cracking tom fills, inner-groove accents that create a forward-motion edge, and consummate consistency. Harvey is also a prolific composer, releasing twelve albums as a leader since 1975. And hip-hop has embraced his beats, which have been sampled by T.I., P. Diddy, Lupe Fiasco, and La Funk Mob, among others.
Mason presents his drumming and classic music anew on his latest album, Chameleon. Performing the title track (which he cowrote with Herbie Hancock) and other old-school Mason classics, the drummer tracked the record live with a band including trumpeter Christian Scott, bassist Ben Williams, and keyboardist Kris Bowers. Chameleon is Harvey Mason raw and untreated. But given Mason’s pro_ le as L.A.’s first-call smooth-jazz timekeeper, it almost didn’t turn out that way. “I wanted more of today’s colors,” Harvey tells Modern Drummer. “But we didn’t add any sweetening, no synths or pads or textures; it was all live. Chris Dunn, my producer, was adamant—he wanted me to play more free. I said, ‘I’ve played all of this before. I don’t want to go back to those grooves.’ But eventually I got into the moment and played. I went with the feeling. The young musicians on the record really liked the rawness. They arranged the songs and put a different twist on the older music.”
And Mason’s “older” beats have stood the test of time. On Lee Ritenour’s 1977 album Captain Fingers, which crosses West Coast slickness with East Coast fusion, the guitarist creates a circuitous, almost impossible-to-follow arrangement in the title track, and Mason devours it. His slippery beat combines swooping hi-hat punctuations with popping snare accents and sparse bass drum notes. Mason grooves madly while also playing unison descending 16th-note lines with Ritenour’s guitar and Anthony Jackson’s bass.
Bob James’ “Westchester Lady” from his 1976 album, Three, provides an example of Mason displacing the beat at an ideal funk tempo. A simple, sparse Rhodes piano rhythm underpinned by Will Lee’s winding bass melody, “Westchester Lady” is seven minutes and thirty seconds of rare groove, delicacy, space, and attack. Mason displaces the song’s beat so often and so cunningly, spreading the accents between the snare and hi-hat, that it’s easy to get lost. Following funky displacement with Bernard Purdie–style hi-hat punches and his trademark descending tom fills, Mason colors “Westchester Lady” beautifully. His sly orchestration characterizes much of Chameleon as well, proving that Harvey has lost nothing of his flash, filigree, and fire.
At a time in the ’70s when fusion drumming followed fairly straight if complex groove patterns, Mason’s working background—his first major gig was as Quincy Jones’ percussionist on The Bill Cosby Show—enabled him to see a wider scope available beyond a strictly drum-centric approach. The preceding examples feature Mason’s top-heavy proclivities: intricate hi-hat and cymbal flourishes, tom fills used more as melodic punctuation than as section setups, even bass drum patterns that occasionally change at will and stray from the bass guitar, especially in group solo sections. Perhaps clues to Harvey’s approach can be found in the fact that this was an East Coast–born drummer who found success on the West Coast, no small thing considering the different vibes that dominate the jazz played on the different sides of the country—hot, aggressive, and dense in the east, and cool, laid back, and cerebral in the west. As such, Mason brought Atlantic City–via–New York soul, jazz, and R&B to popular records from CTI, Warner Bros., and Reprise, primarily recorded in Los Angeles with West Coast musicians.
Mason’s displacement assaults undoubtedly influenced Dave Weckl’s similar if more complex rhythmic spins in the ’90s and similarly foreshadowed the mathematically dense drumming of Dennis Chambers, Chris Dave, and Ronald Bruner Jr. And while his early style was not as instantly recognizable as that of his studio contemporaries Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine, and Andy Newmark, Mason had an equal influence with his incredibly polished and funky tracks. Even while holding down a deep, consistent groove, the drummer illustrated arrangements with detail and depth—again, a result of his percussionist’s approach. And with Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters album, Mason proved that pocket drumming could be as exciting as any fusion fusillades, helping to make “Chameleon” one of the most popular jazz-funk tracks of all time. The “Mase” groove remains ubiquitous to this day, same as it ever was.