Review: Harvey Mason at Ronnie Scott's

Francis Graham-Dixon watches as the veteran drummer breathes new life into seminal 1970s jazz and funk tunes at the EFG London Jazz Festival, transfixing Ronnie's diners mid-chew

Harvey Mason’s motivation in creating Chameleon, his exciting new band, grew from never having had enough time to go and play live, given the constant demands of responding to the call as arguably the most in-demand session drummer of all time. Although the studio is where he earned the moniker “Chameleon” for the ease with which he adapts to and adds his imprimatur to any given musical situation, it is on stage where he now has the opportunity to really stretch out and display his dazzling range of talents as versatile instrumentalist, composer and bandleader.

This was well demonstrated on his dates at Ronnie Scott’s (pictured) as part of the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival. The band played two sets of just short of two hours, and showed that if the tunes are strong enough, reinterpretations of seminal 1970s jazz and funk tunes for new audiences – as well as for the older ones – can unearth musical possibilities for innovative developments in this often caricatured genre, and breathe renewed vigour into the music. It’s a while since I can recall a gig here with the audience sidetracked from their dinner plates by the music.

What is so refreshing about Chameleon is that Mason has chosen to work alongside a new generation of emerging high-quality musicians, as his recently-released Chameleon record, reviewed in June’s Jazz Journal, amply demonstrates. He was joined on stage by Mark de Clive-Lowe on keyboards, synthesizers and programming, well known for his innovative electronic music and as DJ and producer, by Kamasi Washington on tenor and soprano saxes and Ernest Tibbs’s distinctive anchor on electric bass.

The night showcased selections from Chameleon, beginning with Looking Forward (Breaking Bad), then a cut from the version only released in Japan featuring a swirling soprano solo, leading into an improved version of Bob James/Grover Washington’s Black Frost. This provided a platform for some fine solos by the quartet, further embellished by refreshingly extended sequences of group and duet improvisation which explored changes in tempo, cadence, timbre and tone. Later came an extraordinary piece of Mason hand drumming which segued into Patrice Rushen’s Before The Dawn featuring an excellent Washington soprano solo but without the Rhodes solo that was at the core of the 1975 original.

Mason’s signature Either Way produced the best and most sustained Yamaha acoustic piano solo of the night, juxtaposed with some exquisite quiet drumming from Mason on mallets. Some might regard a return to Hancock’s 1974 Thrust and 1973 Headhunters classic albums as a predictable course, but the three chosen cuts all worked in exciting new ways. Sly showcased Mason’s precision freewheeling, full of deftness, sonority, changes in pacing and phrasing, vital and vibrant here as on the original, and supported by synthesizer clavinet interleaved with fine Rhodes playing by de Clive-Lowe, and ending with synthesizer percussion – congas, woodblock and triangle – in tandem with Mason.

De Clive-Lowe’s best moments came on Actual Proof where he nailed a courageously expressive Rhodes solo that I am sure Herbie himself would have enjoyed. These tunes work in their updated context, precisely because it is impossible to compare such different playing styles as de Clive-Lowe to Hancock, Washington’s to Bennie Maupin, or indeed Mason’s to Mike Clark on the Thrust album.

Butterfly glided into double time and some reassuringly familiar minor ninth chords. Chameleon was transformed into a slow, spacey groove full of keyboard effects and colour but despite this departure from the original it has perhaps become too familiar as the Mason signature tune, given the rich reservoir of other classics in his back catalogue.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was an outrageous deconstruction, and triumphant funk-laden reconfiguration of Take Five, a tune that I have never warmed to for its ingratiating politeness - I must be in a small minority. This could have fallen flat here as misplaced pastiche, but proved quite the opposite in Mason’s hands as he traded solos with Tibbs and synthesizer and effects played call and response with Washington’s soprano. It crowned an energising evening to lift the spirits.

Photo: Ben Amure

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