This writer had one of those weird “what world are they in? moments recently encountering an article questioning why the piano is losing favor. Admittedly, while not going very far into the article and chalking it up as one of the pop-oriented articles that often hits the phone, it just reverberated oddly as in the past few and upcoming weeks my coverage has extended to Emmet Cohen, Mathis Piccard, Angelica Sanchez, Shuteen Erdenebaatar, Kevin Hays, and Joey Alexander – mostly youthful ones at that. And consider Isaiah J. Thompson, winner of the American Pianists Award and Jahari Stampley, winner of the Herbie Hancock Institute for Jazz competition on piano, both of whom are not yet 25. There are more examples, but if nothing else, maybe we’re witnessing instead, at least in jazz, a revival of the piano. Joining those ranks is Sean Mason, another twenty-something who has already held down the piano chair in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and backed acclaimed vocalist Catherine Russell. Now he adds his debut, Southern Suite, to his glowing resume.
Mason hails from Charlotte, NC and began as a self-taught pianist influenced by gospel, soul, and R&B, the music he was raised on. He was ‘discovered’ by Branford Marsalis who urged Mason to move to NYC while also greasing the soon-to-be musical relationship with brother Wynton. Since, he appeared on NPR’s influential multimedia show “Jazz Night In America” which chose him as one of five musicians for their “Youngbloods” series. He was also featured on Branford Marsalis’ film score for the highly acclaimed Netflix production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In spring 2023, at Lincoln Center in collaboration with The Soapbox Presents, Mason premiered the large-scale work Chrome Valley, a multimedia piece setting his original music to the poetry of Mahogany L. Browne. All of these were accomplished while Mason attended the prestigious Juilliard School.
Now we have The Southern Suite featuring an all-star quintet in its most classic instrumentation which Mason handpicked to accompany him on tour: Tony Glausi (trumpet), Chris Lewis (tenor saxophone), Felix Moseholm (bass), and Domo Branch (drums). Branch also appeared on Blue Engine’s live album from Isaiah J. Thompson, Power of the Spirit. This quintet played his eight originals often on tour and had them down when the group hit the studio. Mason says the album is situated at the intersection of ‘renaissance’ and ‘street culture.’ Mason was caught in that tug of war between learning his craft and acceding to the r trends of fashion and street pursuits prevalent in his community.
The album kicks off with the fleet fingered Mason igniting the swinger “Final Voyage” which features animated unison and individual turns from the frontliners. The searing, blistering tempo of “Kid” sounds at times like Bud Powell on steroids, Moseholm and Branch motoring the high-flying pianist until the two horns put an emphatic cap on the final coda. “Lavender” glides along ever so smoothly by comparison, almost as if composed with a vocalist in mind., with the horns supplying the lyricism to this song with an impossibly catchy finger snapping hook, exposed to its rawest in bassist Moseholm’s solo. “SillyM” has all group members playfully swapping riffs, as the tune plays out like a joyous street parade. Lewis blows fierce clusters, Branch ratchets up the tempo, to what could easily be a tent revival soundtrack in the second half of the piece that surprises us as we’re gleefully engaged in proverbial dance, with its abrupt ending.
“One United” is a mid-tempo swinger, yet another testament to Mason’s “old school” approach, reinforced here by Lewis’ deep, guttural tenor, and tensile give-and-take with Mason’s comping. Glausi builds his solo more deliberately but soon joins Mason in lively, convivial exchanges, before Mason quotes some whimsical nursery rhymes and runs up and down the scales in dialogue with Branch, all culminating in a strong track full of its share of surprises. “Lullaby” softly reveals Mason’s sensitive and lyrical side with its simple refrain but with “Closure” he begins to break with the boundaries of tradition, bringing gospel, swing, and contrapuntal techniques of classical to roost in one single piece. The final “Sean’s Theme” is another example of his playful nature, a theme so strong it could indeed be associated with a late-night TV entertainment slot.
With Mason’s piano cred already steeply solidified, Southern Suite is one big shoutout to Mason’s compositional talents. His songs are both old and new at the same time. Just as we think we’re hearing something familiar; he can turn it in a different direction, while mostly exuding infectious joy along the way.
- Jim Hynes
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