Elliot Mason, a bold and creative trombonist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, recorded his developing baby’s heartbeat into one of his songs. This is just one of many cool things about Mason’s new CD titled “Before, Now & After.”
Collaborating with his wife, vocalist Sofija Knezevic, makes this CD all the more infused with love and warmth. For example, it delivers the slow and contemplative feel you expect from “In a Sentimental Mood,” but here Mason adds a Chet-like quality with his beautifully sad approach on horn. Adding a layer of lightness are the vocals, which play off the trombone as they trade the spotlight. Another track from this CD, “Vulnerable,” has a sunny spirit with its intro of piano and slowly circling brushes. The surprise is the perfect unity of the trombone and vocal lines, mirroring one another like two halves of the same image. So versatile is Mason on his instrument that his improv provides a scenic bridge in this lovely song, where the piano remains poignant to a tee. “Passion Dance” is punchier, adding funk and again includes some very accomplished vocals, paired once more with trombone. In comes the brilliant, brassy trumpet of his brother, Brad Mason, making this song a visceral pleasure.
“Before, Now & After” is a well-woven CD with texture and substance, and a feel-great vibe.
When and why did you start trombone?
Both my parents are jazz musicians; my father was a music educator who played trumpet, trombone and bass trumpet, and my mother is a jazz vocalist and still singing. From as early as I can remember there was always jazz in the house. If someone wasn’t listening to it, they were practicing it. For me, this created an overwhelming curiosity towards the extravagant metal objects in the forbidden room.
When I was four years old I tried to play my dad’s Bach Mount Vernon bass trumpet while it was on its stand. This swiftly resulted in me getting my own student model trumpet. When I was seven, my father thought my embouchure was better suited for trombone and I willingly made the switch.
What’s different about your custom trombones? What are your favorite accessories?
I’ve been fortunate to work with Mike Corrigan from Best American Craftsmen (BAC) for the last seven years to create the Elliot Mason Signature Series. Our goal was to develop something new with a unique, personalized perspective and make that available for everyone.
It has been quite a journey and a wonderful learning experience. I am very proud to be able to help design a trombone that is truly unique in its dimensions, with improved features that include a multi-directional adjustable thumb rest, which enables you to completely adjust the horn to fit your hand; and multiple threaded balancing counter weights, giving you the ability to dial in your balancing preferences, as well as redesigning the slide lock.
I had the daunting task of picking favorites from 40 different lead pipes, 20 different slides and multiple bell flare options, all while mixing and matching multiple high-quality metal options such as nickel silver, yellow brass, gold brass, copper, stainless steel and phosphor bronze.
My favorite accessory has to be the case, because of the screw bell option. The case is flat and resembles a violin, which is amazing for traveling!
What themes inspire you when you compose?
It really all starts from emotions, colors and feelings. I try to be clear-minded and in the moment, following my instincts to create something that I find emotionally moving. This process of not leading with your intellectual side and letting knowledge naturally seep in can be challenging at times, but always rewarding. For me, it usually results in the focusing of meaning behind the notes and brings more of a purpose to my writing/performance.
Describe your journey to get to perform for Jazz at Lincoln Center.
My journey is slightly different than most members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO). I didn’t grow up in the US, so unfortunately I didn’t come through the Essentially Ellington competition or have an opportunity to perform with Wynton prior to my audition.
The trombone chair was open for more than a year. I was told that both Chris Crenshaw and Vincent Gardner (the two full-time trombonists in the band) put my name forward to audition. Shortly after I was called for one week of concerts. I was then called back for another week and then for a month-long tour, where we had more opportunities to solo and stretch.
During the tour I was asked to join the orchestra for a season (a year’s contract), and I now just signed my contract for 2018-19, which will be my 12th season with the band.
What have you learned from working with Wynton Marsalis?
Just being around someone who is such an advocate for the art form, whether it’s through performing, education or raising awareness, his passion continually impacts me and everyone close to him. He truly is the hardest-working person that I’ve ever met, and all while raising the bar for his instrument.
Playing alongside Wynton, not only being exposed to his musical voice, but the many unique personalities in the JLCO, has without a doubt influenced me and my musical decisions.
Wynton recently said, “Being a member of the JLCO means I might not get to solo as much as performing in a smaller configuration, but I’m a better musician for it.”
This really hit home for me. I might not solo as often as I’d like to, but hearing Wynton and every other JLCO member while performing different music covering all eras of jazz has definitely raised my level of musicianship.
What is it like to be part of such a large and established orchestra?
It is extremely rewarding. I am very grateful to not only be playing jazz for a living, but to be continually performing new and classic music from what feels like an almost infinite library. We diversely cover the art form that is my life’s passion, and I get to do this with some of today’s finest jazz musicians.
We do spend 250+ days together a year, half of those being seven-hour rehearsals. The other days are split between concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC and four to five months on the road touring. It’s understandable why we often refer to each other as our second family, sometimes first!
Who are the members of your Quintet and what does each bring to the sound?
For the concept of this album, I knew the perfect rhythm section would be my fellow JLCO musicians. Not only do they have an unbelievable connection, but they know my playing better than anyone, as we have played together for over 11 years.
In the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra we often cover a lot of musical ground within one set, capturing nuances but still staying true to yourself when playing something written in the 1920’s through to the new music of today. All of these attributes made Dan Nimmer, Ali Jackson and Carlos Henriquez the perfect rhythm section for this album.
I had three guests on the album, Joe Lovano, Tim Hagans and my brother Brad Mason.
The main underlying theme is how rich their sounds are, all dripping with tradition yet extremely unique. When rearranging, changing time signatures and adding harmony to classics like “Resolution” or “Caravan,” the foundation needed someone with that strong intense sound to hold together the feeling of the new with the original. Joe and Tim were definitely my first choices to fill these roles.
The vocalist, Sofija Knezevic, was more my collaborating partner for this project, as well as writing all the beautiful lyrics for my originals. I first met Sofija six years ago in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in NYC. After hearing her for the first time, I couldn’t agree more with what Tim Hagans said in the liner notes: “Hearing Sofija sing, I cannot remember when I was so touched by a human voice.” Shortly after we met, we fell deeply in love. We have been married for two years and we now have a baby boy of six months.
Our connection and love story have been a huge inspiration for the writing and performance of this album. Sofija was six months pregnant when we recorded the album, and the tune “& Then There Were <3” was written for the baby. His heartbeat is featured at the beginning and end of the track.
What is it like to create music and perform with your brother?
It truly is wonderful. We have a musical bond like nothing that I’ve ever experienced. From finishing each other’s sentences to starting phrases together in harmony, I’m often still shocked when it happens but somehow we both expect and know it will occur every time we play.
Up until this album, any musical idea, melody or self-expression has been solely directed towards The Mason Brothers Quintet. My brother Brad and I have played together since we were four.
With “Before, Now & After,” it’s more of a reflection of my own individual musical and life path, but of course I still heard Brad’s sound and our interplay when composing. I narrowed it down to featuring Brad on “Passion Dance,” as this was a tune that greatly influenced us both.
What inspired “Before, Now & After” and what is the name a reference to?
The album was released on January 19th 2018. During the early conceptual stages, I was commissioned by MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art (New York), to write a piece for their Summer Garden Series. As I was exploring different approaches of how to connect the museum’s values with my own, the similarities between visual art and jazz as an art form started to become more revealing to me.
My idea was to bring the listener closer to the knowledge and creative treasures of the past, left to us by the greats, with a new twist and sonic atmosphere that would represent the now and hopefully help bridge future generations back to the past.
After many conversations and much contemplation, we decided the simplest and most direct name to describe that concept was “Before, Now & After.”
What are the two most different tracks?
Each track is quite different than the next, so it is very difficult to pick just two. The title track is definitely unlike anything that I’ve previously written.
“& Then There Were <3” is also quite new to my writing, primarily because of its configuration. Trombone, tenor and drums play the three characters, as we alternate melody phrases and interact with the drums while soloing on the chord changes of “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Did you write it intending that the songs tell a cohesive story?
This album is musically like nothing I’ve previously written or arranged. Before I even had a concept, I started with a goal to “emotionally move the listener.”
The next question to myself was, what recordings/songs move me, and why? After reflecting, most of my musical influences were my longtime heroes such as John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan and Antonio Carlos Jobim, where their recordings could instantly change the way I am feeling and leave me with so much positivity.
As the concept for this album developed, I wanted to embody the emotions from my favorite recordings. I didn’t want to recreate them, but I also didn’t want to go to the other extreme and run so far away from them that you lose the gift that they gave us.
When rearranging one of the four standards that I chose, I wanted to embrace them, hear them in a new light and add a fresh vision and 21st Century insight to them. When composing the other four tunes on the album, I wanted to write songs that would capture these same feelings that the standards did when I first heard them. As an artist, nothing influences your individual voice more than feeding from your life’s journey, so these tunes have been motivated and shaped by Sofija’s and my connection, as well as my love for music, jazz and all artists that inspire.
I hope the story is cohesive to the listener.
I also understand that it’s a very challenging task to mix great standards with newly written music while embracing diversity, and still maintain a suite-like flow to the album.
How are you marketing it?
We performed at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in NYC for the album release and have more dates in Europe this summer.
I’ve just launched a new website that has extended listening clips, signed physical copies of the CD, instant downloadable hi-res and CD-quality WAV’s, plus all the sheet music that we used to record the album available for purchase. New website: elliotmason.org
What do you want people to really know about this CD?
This is not the kind of jazz album where people are trying to show off and squeeze in what they’ve practiced at the expense of everything musical.
This record is an emotional and intellectual journey that was written with the main goal of moving the listener. It culminates from being intertwined in life’s emotions and hopefully brings out the innermost passion, love and positivity in oneself.
What’s the most exciting part of being a trombonist?
Once you find your way around some of the technical limitations, the trombone can be the freest, most expressive and closest instrument to the human voice. Being able to naturally capture those nuances is one of the main reasons I look forward to picking up this horn and nurturing my own inner voice.
For more information, visit www.elliotmason.org.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Elliot Mason.
© Debbie Burke 2018