Pianist and composer Janette Mason’s new trio album Red Alert, with Tom Mason, bass, and Jack Pollitt, drums, is out on vinyl. She talked to Alison Bentley about the appeal of vinyl; working as a trio; the influence of Herbie Hancock, Brubeck and Bowie, and being Jonathan Ross’ musical director.
London Jazz News: Dot Time Records is bringing Red Alert out on vinyl.
Janette Mason: I hope it’ll appeal to younger listeners – I’m just testing the waters now, because I’ve never put vinyl out before. But from what I see, it does seem to be what people are wanting to do now. It’s going to take a while for people to catch up with buying turntables again, but there’s definitely a huge interest.
LJN: To have a beautifully-produced package…
JM: Absolutely. I’ve noticed the same thing with books now – people do want something tactile. I put my album on the turntable the other day and it sounds great, and completely different to how it sounds on CD.
LJN: I know you’re really keen on the importance of sound.
JM: I spent a lot of time on the production with Andrew Tulloch, a great guy I’ve worked with for the last 15 years. We always start working in a very good recording studio, so we start from the bottom end up.
LJN: It’s a while since you’ve made a trio album.
JM: The last one was in 2009 [Alien Left Hand] and was nominated for a Parliamentary Jazz Award. Red Alert was a bit of a change in direction for me – I wanted to get back to playing keyboards and get a slightly different sound from a straight ahead piano-based trio. I’ve always played keyboards as well, and I just wanted to be a bit more contemporary, and add in some different sounds. It’s nice for the audience to have a shift in texture. There’s one track, Skating on Thin Ice, which is quite electronic, mixing it in with jazz. My influences are also groove-based, so I think on this album I’ve pulled together a lot of my influences – funk, jazz, soul.
My idea was originally to write an album inspired by Dave Brubeck’s Time Out. I wanted to explore different time signatures and get away from straight ahead swing and 4/4. That coincided in 2017 with all the terrorist attacks happening, It kind of changed direction, and the album became my reaction to that – I wrote several pieces to reflect what was going on. I See Seven is in 7; The Yearning is in 11, which is very challenging to play.
I think it’s fantastic that a band like Snarky Puppy can be at the Albert Hall, but their music isn’t that different to what a lot of us have been doing for some time, so I was just wanting to head more in that direction. It’s no different to what Herbie was doing on Head Hunters – I think it’s come full circle where you can mix those genres again.
LJN: You’re thinking of doing a live recording with the trio.
JM: Dot Time Records are based in New York and Bremen. They’ve done a series called the Nord Sessions in Bremen, just recorded straight to vinyl. So that’s going to be recorded in December 2020. I think I’m going to call the next one Green Alert, about climate change, because I just can’t get away from feeling quite politicised.
LJN: You’ve recorded your other albums with singers and saxophone. Does the trio format really change the way you play?
JM: I love working with singers – there’s just a totally different reaction from the audience, and I think it’s a way that I can’t express myself. I’ve had a very long-term collaboration with David McAlmont for the last eight years, where we just spark ideas off each other. On the previous two albums I did have sax, Julian Siegel and Mornington Lockett. But with my own compositions, I think I get more of a chance to explore my own playing if I’m not backing a singer.
LJN: Have you always played jazz?
JM : Yes – my mother was a jazz musician – we were brought up with that music. In my house we had a piano, drum kit and vibraphone, and jazz in the background the whole time. She was musical director at a holiday camp, where they had Maynard Ferguson coming in, and Dakota Staton. David Bowie even played there once. I remember watching Oscar Peterson’s TV show, and I just said, that’s what I want to do – I’ve always been driven to do that. I also grew up listening to Sergio Mendes, George Benson, Erroll Garner and Dudley Moore. I’m very much rooted in that era, 1950s jazz piano.
LJN: You arrange Songbook projects at London’s Hideaway, and have been musical director there since 2012. Have any particular songwriters influenced your composition?
JM: I’m a huge David Bowie fan, and I’m actually just about to put out a Bowie EP of my own arrangements. In some ways he was boundary-less. I’m quite eclectic and I have tried all different types of music – I don’t pigeonhole myself as just a jazz musician. I’ve got a lot of projects on the go. I’ve teamed up with Dusty Springfield’s biographer, Lucy O’Brien – we’ve been doing a combination of words and music.
LJN: You’ve written a lot for film and TV- you were MD for Jonathan Ross
JM: That was one of his early series. They wanted to put an all-female band together. I would usually get the call with Michele Drees on drums and Yolanda Charles on bass. I got to play with some great people, like kd lang and Suzanne Vega. I think that’s what set me on the road to wanting to do lots of different stuff. I did a degree in composition for film and TV.
LJN: Do you think about films when you’re composing?
JM: I think I always have. I usually collect titles that inspire me. There’s a lot of peaks and troughs in my music, and I try and take you on a journey when you’re listening.
Janette Mason’s Red Alert Trio:
27 Feb: The Stage Door Eastbourne
12 Mar: Pizza Express Dean Street
(with Chris Morris, drums; Tom Mason, bass)