Tony Mason
Photo by Michael Rosati

A revered New York cat quietly plies his trade and builds a résumé to die for.

New York native Tony Mason, one of NYC’s most in-demand drummers, has a reputation built on his fierce backbeat, soulful timing, and undeniable groove. You can hear it on any of his recent work, including Norah Jones’ number-one album Not Too Late (on the hit single “Thinking About You”), Jim Campilongo’s Orange, Gravity Happens by Kate Voegele (of the TV show One Tree Hill), the Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout’s Who Burnt the Bacon?, and the Dred Scott Trio’s Going Nowhere. Mason has also logged miles with the Soup Dragons, Holly Palmer, Joan Osborne, Martha Wainwright, Paula Cole, the Bloomdaddies, Bo Diddley, Leo Nocentelli, and Charlie Hunter.

Listening to Mason’s playing, you can clearly detect influences including Lloyd Knibb, Russ Kunkel, Steve Gadd, Elvin Jones, and Zigaboo Modeliste (who by chance is Tony’s brother-in-law). So solid is Mason’s feel that guitarist Charlie Hunter has said, “He happens to be, in my opinion, the best pure pocket drummer I’ve ever heard. Science. In terms of groove and time, it’s his world—we live in it and act accordingly.”

Modern Drummer met with Tony one Saturday afternoon at Junior’s in Brooklyn for some coffee and conversation.

MD: How did you get your start in New York City?

Tony: At first I kind of studied by just hanging out at a lot of the clubs—you know, learning by osmosis, which is what a lot of guys back in the early days did. There weren’t a lot of jazz schools in the ’40s and ’50s, so you’d just go and watch people play. Then I started going to jam sessions. I used to play on the street, in Central Park, drag my drums to the subways. I think I knew I wasn’t going to have a career as a jazz drummer, but I knew it was something that I wanted to learn and I wanted to play. Just learning how to swing on a ride cymbal can make your rock ’n’ roll and funk sound better.

Then for the next ten years I played simple groove/backbeat gigs. That led to singersongwriter gigs, which led to my first tour with the Soup Dragons, in 1994. With them I learned a lot about playing big shows and hitting it from beat one. I was playing to loops and to a click live, which was a good learning experience. It exposed some holes in my playing, which any big gig has the potential of doing.

MD: What was it like working with drummer Anton Fier [Pere Ubu, the Feelies, Lounge Lizards, Golden Palominos] as the producer on Jim Campilongo’s Orange?

Tony: Anton didn’t dictate a lot of things drum-wise or parts-wise in general, but he was very straight up and would let you know, “That’s not what I hear on Monday nights at the Living Room.” If he felt like I was playing the same fill on every take, he would help us get out of might not be so safe. He’s a drummer that I admire a lot, so that was motivating for me.

MD: You have a degree in classical percussion from the Manhattan School of Music. Have you ever had to seek out subsequent instruction?

Tony: Recently I was reading this old interview with Jack DeJohnette, and he was talking about how you want to feel as relaxed as if you were in the fourth row of the audience watching yourself play. That’s something I’ve been working on. I can tense up when things get more intense or if I have to play something fast, and that’s when you should actually get looser. A few years after getting out of school, I realized: Man, I’ve got a really good feel and I can groove, but my hands hurt! So I studied some hand technique with Henry Adler, Joe Morello, and Dom Famularo. My first lesson with Dom Famularo was me holding the stick and him saying, “Put your wrist on your lap. Notice how straight it is? Well, when you put the stick in your hand, nothing should change.”

MD: What advice would you give to up-and-coming drummers who are interested in professional playing?

Tony: One of the best compliments I’ve gotten is when someone says something like, “Man, it feels so comfortable to play with you.” I just love supporting and making my bandmates feel good. Beyond that, show up on time, make sure you know the music, make sure you know the tempos, make sure your instrument sounds good, leave your ego at the door, and play for the song. Whatever type of music it is, always put it before your own playing.

Be a person who someone wants to work with and is easy to get along with. Make sure to research and really know where the music you’re playing is coming from. If you’re playing R&B, check out someone like Bernard Purdie. If you can make people feel good and be a supportive player, people will respond to that. You’ll get work and get asked back.

I would also say that it’s good to learn multiple styles, because they can help each other out. At the same time, it’s very important to focus on a couple of things and become “the guy” for that type of thing. When I zeroed in on the pocket/R&B stuff, I instantly started working more.

MD: Would you elaborate a little on the idea of playing for the song?

Tony: I really try to pay attention to the tune and the overall volume and dynamics of the band. A drummer friend of mine paid me a really great compliment once by saying, “I notice that when you play, you have a way of cutting through the band, but you don’t wreck the band.” A lot of it comes with experience and confidence. Get as comfortable within your groove and your sound as you can, and if you’re paying attention to the song, I think everything else falls into place.

 

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

For New York City gigs, Mason generally plays whatever the venue provides or, as many drummers in the city often do, uses a “mutt” kit comprising drums and cymbals of assorted makes and models. When on tour, he employs one of his vintage 1960s Slingerland, Gretsch, or Ludwig kits. On Charlie Hunter tours, for example, he played his ’60s blue marine pearl Ludwigs: 22″ bass drum, 12″ rack tom, and 14″ and 16″ floor toms, with a 51/2×14 metal Ludwig snare. Tony also uses Craviotto snare drums for select gigs and sessions. He endorses Bosphorus cymbals and plays a 22″ Masters Vintage ride with three rivets or a 22″ Traditional ride, an 18″ Masters crash, and 14″ Masters hi-hats. On occasion he’ll also use a selection of vintage Zildjian A and K crash cymbals.