Charlottean and JazzArts alum Sean Mason is a familiar face to local supporters who watched his musical growth over the past decade. Last week he took some time while on his “When You Wish Upon a Star” tour to talk about the roots of his new album, The Southern Suite, which releases on October 27.
Q. Tell us about your new single Closure and The Southern Suite.
A. Closure is from my debut album called The Southern Suite, which is an album that is rooted in the South. That’s kind of a metaphor meaning that it’s rooted in tradition, but it’s also a look to the future, where I can go, where the music can go, and having this duality of being rooted in traditionalism but also looking forward and being innovative. I grew up in a culture where you couldn’t have both really. In the south, it’s expected that you are traditional. In New York, which is where I live now, it’s expected that you’re innovative and that you forget about tradition. I wanted to create an album that had both of those ideals in one body of work. In the sense that I’m still Sean Mason, I’m still going to be 100% myself, and unapologetically, but I also have done my homework and I want to pay homage to the great musical ancestors and the ancestors in general that came before me.
Closure is a good example of that. The musical elements are definitely rooted in the black gospel church and also in the Bebop language with Charlie Parker …but it’s also rooted in the polyphony of New Orleans music and its collective improvisation that happens between the clarinet, the trumpet, and the trombone; you hear that on the solo section. It also has its roots even further back of a voice leading and contrapuntal motion of Bach in the Baroque era and the 18th century. All of that is present in that one song…but when people listen to it at the end of the day, I want people to enjoy and to be able to dance, and to have fun while listening. Only the nerds are going to care about what I just said, but while all of that complexity is happening under what you’re listening to, I still want it to be enjoyable and want it to be a melody that people sing. So far, the response has been great, people are singing the melody, people are really enjoying the single.
The whole album is about duality. How can I create a melody that singable but that’s also intellectual and able to be studied, but it’s not too intellectual or it’s also not so simple that it’s labeled as easy listening. I wanted to strike that balance, musically and with the album cover…I wanted to make sure aesthetically it was a good mix of masculine and feminine energy and for that to be represented visually, but also musically. The album is really about this duality of two different things existing at one time, and not being forced to choose between one or the other.
Q. Talk a little bit about that complexity and how you bring that to everything that you do.
A. I want the complexity to be accessible. I’m a huge proponent of history. I love history. As a musician and as an artist who loves history that just basically means I love studying the history of the art of the music and going back and kind of being genre agnostic. Looking at music as all music and whatever’s good music is good music and learning from what I can, taking those elements that I like, putting them all into this big pot and then putting my name on that pot and seeing what comes out. And to give me direction because sometimes that can be overwhelming. That’s why I wrote The Southern Suite, to put it into a suite that had a specific theme… This album is a nod to the south but it’s also expressing the things I didn’t like about the South, basically being forced to conform to traditionalism. I didn’t like that aspect of the South. I can not like something and also like something at the same time. The whole album is about duality. And it extends to politics, you know, you can disagree with somebody and still have the maturity to respect them and like them as a person. And so, there’s some things I disagree with about the nature of the South but I still love the South. I wanted to name the album The Southern Suite and not only am I going to express my joy about this album, I’m also going to express that some songs are about pain; know two things can happen at the same time while still enjoying the album.
Q. Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
A. Ray Charles is the reason why I play the piano; that was the reason why I started. Things are coming full circle. I found out about Jazz Arts, at the time, it was called Jazz Arts initiative. My mom found a small article in the paper and enrolled me into I think it was a summer camp and from there I maintained a relationship with Lonnie and Ocie and remained in that program throughout the duration of my high school years until I left. Charlie Parker was a huge influence on me, and the great thing about when study with people who know jazz is that you learn the history. My thing has always been, how can I learn the history and still be myself? Because I think some musicians’ calling is truly to honor history and to play in the style of their idol. I don’t see any problem with that, because that’s what that person is aligned to do and that’s their calling. My calling is different. My calling is to compose music, but my calling is also to honor my roots. That’s just present in all of my work. My biggest influence is of course with Charlie Parker, Ray Charles, Bach, Richard Strauss the list goes on and on… I try to learn from wherever I can learn from, steal those elements that I like, and just continue to put them in the pot and not be ashamed. I want to learn from people. I continue to go see music, even to this day. I’m a regular at Terra Blues in New York. I love going to the acoustic sets at 730. It’s like one guy on a guitar or a banjo and it’s just the most soulful music I’ve ever heard in my life. I’m still a student, and I’ll forever be a student. I just want to learn as much as I can. Because that just makes me become a better artist and a better musician.
Q. Speaking of that, what do you want to teach the next generation of musicians?
A. I want them to be true to their calling. I don’t want students to feel forced to want to have to do something. And all I can do is expose them to what’s out there and then let them pick.
Q. What do you really want Charlotte supporters to know when they see this article?
A. I want them to listen to the album! Hopefully they enjoy it and spread the word and try to support the artist and support Jazz Arts. Just listen to the album. Get a CD. Get a vinyl.