Sean Mason’s Southern Spirit of Celebration

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“Everybody thought I was smooth when I was growing up, so they called me ‘silky,’” Sean Mason says. The Southern Suite, his new album, proves it.

(Photo: EBAR)

Pianist-composer Sean Mason lives in New York — he moved there in 2018 to attend Juilliard — but he remains deeply immersed in the cultural heritage of his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. He summons this birthright on his 2023 debut album, The Southern Suite (Blue Engine Records).

“This album is really a personal documentation of [my] time in the South and how that inspires who I am now,” Mason said. “But it’s also a microcosm of the opposing themes of traditionalism and modernism. I’m exploring these things, musically.”

Central to Mason’s musings on these themes are some deceptively simple questions. What is tradition? At what point is something deemed modern? Who gets to decide what these terms mean?

“I tend to be an optimist,” he said. “And I see a through line. For every type of music that falls under this name ‘jazz,’ the through line is the blues. And the blues isn’t an experience — it’s a mindset.”

Mason’s probing creativity — along with his obvious maturity as a musician — doubtless impressed saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who first met the young pianist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where Mason earned his undergraduate degree. Branford began to mentor Mason, later introducing him to his brother Wynton, who helms both the jazz studies program at Juilliard and Jazz at Lincoln Center (which owns Blue Engine Records).

In acknowledgement of Branford’s influential guidance, Mason wrote “Kid,” one of eight tracks on the album; with its angular movement and infectious bounce, the composition recalls Branford’s own piece “The Mighty Sword.”

“It feels like recess to me. You can just play,” Mason said of his new tune. “The form and harmony are very simple because I wanted to root them in ‘traditionalism’ and just blow on triads. That was an inspiration from early New Orleans, pre-1940s jazz: to keep it simple in that regard.”

Mason also likes to keep his melodies simple, and he often leans into pared-down motivic lines, repeating them for emphasis. This compositional device has differing effects across the album’s program — the cyclic phrases might pack a wallop, as on “Kid,” or seduce the ear, as on “Lavender.” The latter, with its bluesy horns and attenuated tempo, demonstrates in particular how clearly Mason grasps the power of understatement.

“This is one of them grown-man swing songs,” Mason joked. “When I was growing up, everybody used to say that I had an old soul, so it’s a nod to that. But it’s a sweet song, with a very sweet melody, and I just wanted that melody to be ingrained in people.”

It’s on “Lullaby,” however — the only ballad on the album — that Mason’s melody-writing reaches an emotional apex. Rueful and poignant, the tune benefits from occasional twists, dynamic escalation and well-timed modulation.

“That was a tune inspired by my grandmother, by her presence. She was soft-spoken, but very firm — truly a Southern grandmother in a small town. She would bake muffins and cupcakes, and I can just smell them,” he recalled. “I wanted that tune to have that warmth. And I wanted to feel in the present moment with it, as if we can breathe in the melody. It’s just melody, so it was one of the hardest tunes to record. We really had to be present.”

Beyond his penchant for elegant melodicism, Mason also appreciates the more complex harmonic visions of the mid-century jazz masters, as on “One United,” admittedly the most standard-sounding tune on the record.

“There’s a lot of inspiration from Miles Davis and the 1950s era of jazz there,” he said of the bop-infused track. “It’s one of those tunes where you can snap your fingers along, and it’s the only song where everybody solos.”

By “everybody,” Mason refers to his gifted quintet with trumpeter Tony Glausi, tenor saxophonist Chris Lewis, bassist Felix Moseholm and drummer Domo Branch. With this group in mind, as arranger, Mason opened the roadmap for improvisational expression on most of the album’s tunes. And as a leader, he decisively established the quintet’s virtuosic abilities — and its unerring cohesion — from the album’s outset. Within the first few seconds of the opener, “Final Voyage,” the listener takes in Mason’s rollicking hook, the crisp accents of the rhythm section and the murmuration of the horns.

This band configuration is one way — but not the only way — in which Mason recalls Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” his own title a playful allusion to the original masterpiece.

Even with Mason’s many informed allusions and references, however, some of his compositions are purely self-referential. Take “SilkyM,” an unsparingly upbeat, funk-laden tune that takes its name from Mason’s childhood moniker.

“Everybody thought I was smooth when I was growing up, so they called me ‘silky,’” Mason admitted good-naturedly. “I wanted this song to be danceable, where we’re having a good time. And the form is just the blues, because we can’t go wrong with the blues.”

On another eponymous track — “Sean’s Theme,” Mason’s usual closer in live performance — the composer elevates a seemingly tossed off walking bass line into a full-blown musical statement. “There’s no form to it, just one line and that’s the whole song,” Mason said. “It’s just one of those fun songs to end it with.” This said, it’s the album’s penultimate track, “Closure,” that reveals Mason at his most integrated — and most definitive.

“‘Closure’ is the culmination of a lot of influences,” he said. “It’s jazz, classical and gospel all at the same time. It’s the polyphony of New Orleans music, but also of Bach and baroque music. The lines have a bebop feel. And the inner harmonies and voice leadings are straight from the Black gospel church.”

Taken together, Mason says, these influences generate a “spirit of celebration” — a phrase that recurs throughout the discussion of his music. It’s something that he takes from his tradition, but something, too, that he offers in return. DB



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