One Track Mind: Harvey Mason, “Chameleon” from Chameleon (2014)

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Harvey Mason’s upcoming debut on the Concord Music label puts the iconic session drummer squarely into his old jazz-funk environs where he made a name for himself back in the 1970s. Chameleon covers tunes from that time and idiom where he either played on the original versions, or could have very well done so. It’s also a generation-spanning disc, bringing together some of his peers from those salad days with the current crop of funk-minded jazz musicians who appreciate what guys like Mason did to put the groove into jazz during a difficult period for the genre as a whole.

There are many more styles that the Fourplay co-founder is so good at playing aside from fusion, giving rise to his nickname “Chameleon.” That also happens to be the signature song of Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters era, one that he co-wrote with Mason and Head Hunters bassist Paul Jackson, and a slam-dunk inclusion into this album. It makes too much sense not to name the whole record that, too; Chameleon drops on April 29.

But about that song, “Chameleon”: Mason brought a lot of talent to bear on this funk-jazz mainstay: from the old school, there’s Jimmy Haslip (bass) and Bill Summers (percussion). From the younger crowd, Kamasi Washington mans tenor sax, Matthew Stevens is on guitar and Mark de Clive-Lowe plays Rhodes and synth. Ben Wendel, who plays sax for the “new school” progressive jazz troupe Kneebody, arranged most of the tune.

It’s Summers’ percussion arrangements at the beginning and end of the performance that grabs the most attention for fans of Hancock’s landmark Head Hunters album. That’s because Summers, who played alongside Jackson and Mason on that record where “Chameleon” originated, famously introduced Hancock’s reworked “Watermelon Man” with a little hindewho vocal percussion arrangement that included blowing into beer bottles. Summers reprises that innovation for the beginning and ending of this reworked version of “Chameleon,” and it fits into that song just as well. In between, Washington blows in-the-pocket phrasing over Mason’s fatback groove and Haslip’s thick bass lines. It doesn’t get quite as adventurous as the 1973 version, but the groovin’ is undeniably righteous in a tough, 70s way.

Harvey Mason wouldn’t have it any other way than that 70s way.

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