Elliot Mason – Before, Now & After
(Archival Recordings 1585. CD review by Tom Green)
Mention Elliot Mason’s name to any trombonist and they’re sure to react with reverence. His unique language, sound and total command of the instrument have marked him out as a trailblazer for more than 10 years, and it’s hard to believe that this is his first solo album. Originally from Norwich, both he and his brother Brad Mason are long-time New York residents and have recorded two CDs as the Mason Brothers Quintet, but from the start of this album it’s clear that this is very much Elliot’s own work – he takes solos on every track, and composes or arranges all the rest.
It should be no surprise that, as a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for 10 years, his rhythm section of choice for his ensemble Cre8tion is made up of his JLCO colleagues Dan Nimmer (piano), Carlos Henriquez (bass), and Ali Jackson (drums), complemented by a number of special guests. The most influential of these is clearly Mason’s wife Sofija Knežević, who is featured particularly on three original tunes that have a strong connecting thread. All have lyrics by Sofija and all feature unison trombone and voice in the melodies, which are often intervallic and unpredictable. The first of these and opening track, Before Now and After, begins with a raga-like chord and the trombonist stating the melody with his trademark wide vibrato – the trombone has always been an extremely vocal instrument in jazz and it is clear its lyrical qualities are very important in his playing. The track feels like a mini-suite, moving through a 7/8 vocal solo, swing trombone and piano solos before a half-time bass solo brings it back to the original melody.
Vulnerable is a slow bossa featuring Mason on bass trumpet, an instrument that could well have been forgotten through the passage of time but which he plays with equal dexterity to the trombone, so much so that it is hard to tell them apart just from listening to the album. The third of the trilogy, Let Me Ask You Something is a more upbeat swing number which again has a strong narrative to it, including a slow rubato introduction and some nice interplay, but the final fade out is a bit of a flat end to the album after everything that’s gone before. The final original on the CD is the 3-minute long And Then There Were <3 a trio between Elliot, tenorist Joe Lovano and Ali Jackson on drums. Dedicated to Elliot’s unborn child, the track moves more into “free” territory for the improvisers and acts as a stand-alone interlude between the other material.
The covers are a mixed bag – the diminished and harmonic minor harmony of Ellington’s Caravan has made it a favourite of modern improvisers and this is very much the sound world Mason naturally inhabits. Here it is given a time signature makeover in 7/4 and a slight re-harmonisation, but there isn’t much new in terms of arranging here and despite a brilliant solo from the bandleader it feels a bit safe especially coming straight after the first original. Tim Hagans guests on trumpet, who also writes liner notes for the album.
Passion Dance is a more successful arrangement, featuring a striking piano intro in true McCoy Tyner style, as well as a new melody in harmony between trombone, voice and trumpet (in this case Elliot Mason’s brother Brad) before the familiar tune comes in, as well as an energetic “shout” chorus at the end. Brad solos first and you can really hear the similarities between his lines and Elliot’s – clearly growing up trying to imitate each other had a particular influence especially on the trombonist’s playing. Copying phrases on trombone that traditionally would be “trumpet” lines with the added benefits that valves give has influenced both his language and technique. The group improvisation together at the end of this track shows their connection.
Coltrane’s Resolution, also featuring Lovano, is the standout track in terms of improvising and interplay. Apparently in the studio the band listened to Coltrane’s live version before playing this, and consequently the energy is on a different level to many of the other tracks. Once Mason and Lovano get going this track truly shows they are masters of their instruments, with a particularly outrageous trombone solo over the full range of the instrument. In A Sentimental Mood is a chance for Knežević to take the melody on her own, though again Elliot’s trombone is the standout feature – I’d struggle to name another trombonist who would decide to play this tune up an octave to a super G.
For me the strength of the album as a whole really hangs on Elliot Mason’s own playing, which threads everything together and is absolutely world-class throughout. The album occasionally feels a little off-balance though and would potentially have been better off with a focus on either standards or original compositions – this is amplified by the track order, where all the originals are always broken up by familiar tunes, so it feels a little like the original material isn’t given enough space for the listener to hear a clear compositional voice. However, Mason’s mastery of his instrument more than makes up for this, and anyone listening will never doubt the trombone’s limitations again.