Session Musician Spotlight: Harvey Mason
The percussionist has played on thousands of records, including hits by Minnie Riperton, Cher, and Vanessa Williams.
With a career spanning over fifty years, one would be hard-pressed to find a genre of music that drummer Harvey Mason hasn’t touched.
This ten-time Grammy nominee has lent his skills to at least 1,100 recordings that run the gamut from song stylists like Gloria Lynne, Dianne Reeves, and Esther Phillips, pop artists including Cher, Barbra Streisand, Jessy J, and Seal, to jazz-fusion artists like Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis, Seawind, and Stanley Clarke.
“I am always trying to find the music in the drums,” he once told Modern Drummer. “I’m thinking musically and harmonically and melodically and not thinking as much rhythmically. I’m motivated and inspired by music, and that’s what inspires me to play.”
An Atlantic City native, Mason’s career began as a teenager playing in a variety of clubs with his band. His session career began as a percussionist in New York City. After being hired by Quincy Jones for television work, he moved to Los Angeles and was soon doing three sessions a day. He told music historian David Nathan, “Most times, we didn’t rehearse ahead of time – it was just a matter of going to the studios, studying the charts, then adding your own embellishments. It’s really a lot more spontaneous than people think.”
Despite his reputation as a session musician, Mason has also recorded eleven solo albums and over a dozen albums with Fourplay, the jazz supergroup he formed with Bob James, Lee Ritenour, and Nathan East. Nonetheless, we wanted to pay tribute to Mason’s incredible studio career. Here are five songs that provide a sampling of his work.
Gene Harris – Higga-Boom
Harvey Mason composed and played on this 1974 hit from Harris’ Blue Note album, Astral Signal. CashBox magazine wrote that the single “just has to be a disco hit,” and praised its “very solid undercurrent of bass and drums.” The latter, of course, was provided by Harvey Mason.
Minnie Riperton with Jose Feliciano – Light My Fire
In an era of epic sessions, this 1979 cover of The Doors’ signature song is one for the books: Hubert Laws, Jeremy Lubbock, Marlo Henderson, Abraham Laboriel, Randy Waldman, and Harvey Mason came together on the song that would close Minnie Riperton’s final studio album. Billboard praised the track’s “superlative rhythm bed.”
Dr. John and Rickie Lee Jones – Makin’ Whoopee
In 1989, Harvey Mason contributed to three tracks on Dr. John’s In a Sentimental Mood, including this Grammy-winning collaboration with Rickie Lee Jones, a cover of a classic jazz composition. Mason told Jazz London Radio, “Jazz is highly creative. It frees the soul. When I play jazz, I think of nothing else; it’s relevant, it lights up my mind.”
Meshell Ndegeocello with Herbie Hancock – Nocturnal Sunshine
Recorded in 1994 for the Red Hot Organization’s Stolen Moments: Red, Hot + Cool compilation intended to raise awareness of the impact AIDS was having in the African American community, Meshell Ndegeocello joined with Harvey Mason, who locks down the groove, with Herbie Hancock, Wah Wah Watson, Luis Conte, and Scritti Politti’s David Gamson.
Vanessa Williams – What Will I Tell My Heart
Williams’ cover of this Dinah Washington classic on her 1991 album The Comfort Zone brought Harvey Mason together with his long-time session mates Stanley Clarke, Pete Christlieb, and Randy Waldman. The Comfort Zone earned five Grammy nominations and was certified triple platinum.
Looking for more? Check out our series of articles on the greatest sessions musicians ever.