Matthew Shipp Talks Harvey Mason’s Chameleon

Wow, this is a nice one. There are so many qualities that make Harvey Mason’s Chameleon a successful album, that it is hard to find a place...

Wow, this is a nice one. There are so many qualities that make Harvey Mason’s Chameleon a successful album, that it is hard to find a place to begin. Mason’s credentials as a drummer hardly need any introduction but he was a member of Herbie Hancock’s legendary band the Headhunters — hence the remake here of their classic cut “Chameleon” — and Mason was one of the most influential drummers in the ’70s jazz-rock-funk fusion scene.

All of that could have been a pitfall for Chameleon — there are plenty of icons who rest on their laurels — but what makes this such a fun listen is that Mason actually has a vision. It’s almost as if he thought through every cliché and every bit of corniness that an album like this could embody, and somehow figured out a way to just do his thing — be himself — have some fun, and make a statement that his music can still be fresh.  I went into this thinking this might be a forum for some type of “then against now piece” —the ’70s versus the 21st century. The naturalness of this album, however, disarmed me.

And the first reason it works so well is that, although this album is extremely well thought out, it has an organic quality to it — it is a completely unpretentious document. Parts of it sound like a synthesis of ’70s funk and some aspects of smooth jazz, but I don’t mean that in a pejorative way — there is a lot of blood, life and fire here.

A lot of Chameleon, Mason’s seventh album as a bandleader, is moody and atmospheric. In fact, though it’s funky it can be thought of as a landscape album. Mason’s vision is revealed through really clever song selections, including a Bobby Hutcherson tune (“Montara”), a Patrice Rushen number (“Before the Dawn”), a Bob James and Grover Washington, Jr. piece (“Black Frost”), plus a few Mason originals. There are a couple of vocals that I could personally do without, but that’s me. There’s nothing wrong with them.

Also, all the solos are exactly what they should be. They are subsumed into the whole, and that is a compliment. All the soloists show exquisite taste, and while they never show off their chops, they are impressive and enhance the compositions — the solos are always in service to the tunes. This is a quality that Mason himself had when working as a drummer in other people’s groups, and it has rubbed off on the whole band. And it’s great that Mason found some inspired young blood. I know trumpeter Christian Scott is younger, and I assume saxophonist Kamasi Washington and guitarist Matthew Stevens are also. And keyboardist Kris Bowers manages to make a Fender Rhodes sound 21st-century.

This album is a vision, a gestalt. Mason was there when the jazz-rock construct came into being — he was one of the original inventors of it —yet he still has open ears and sounds like he just basically really enjoys what he does.There’s a lot of good energy and good feelings on this disc. It is mean and lean and at times employs beautiful atmospherics. Chameleon oozes taste and screams integrity. But what really makes it happening is that it’s fun.

Talkhouse Contributing Writer Matthew Shipp is a pianist and composer. You can visit his website here.