Two Sides One Story
Mason Brothers Quintet: 'Two Sides, One Story' (2012) Growing up in Norwich, England, about 100 miles north of London, brothers Brad and Elliot Mason were immersed in jazz from an unusually early age. "We've been playing together since we were like four or five years old," says trombonist and younger brother Elliot. "So you could say that this debut is like our life's work within one album." Adds trumpeter and older brother Brad, "We thought about putting something out when we first graduated from Berklee and moved to New York [in 1996]. But we just didn't feel that we were ready at that point to do something that would stand the test of time and really be a good representation of us." Fast-forward 14 years and the brothers are now seasoned players on the NYC scene-Elliot having gained invaluable bandstand experience with the Mingus Big Band, the Count Basie Orchestra, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and since 2007 as a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra directed by Wynton Marsalis; Brad performing with the likes of Natalie Cole, Mike Stern, Randy Brecker, Lionel Loueke, the Mingus Big Band, Chico O'Farrill's Latin Jazz Band, and since 2007 as a member of the John Mayer Band. The brothers have also played and recorded together in bassist Janek Gwizdala's electric band and in Serbian drummer Marko Djordjevic's Balkan-influenced group Sveti. They bring all of those varied musical experiences to bear on Two Sides, One Story, their auspicious self-produced debut. "Now we feel like we're in a different place, musically and personally," says Elliot. "So putting out this record really does mean a lot to us. Also, we feel so proud that we've done it all ourselves and we've done it the way we wanted to do it from start to finish." Considering their indelible tightness both as siblings and players, Two Sides, One Story is an apt title for the first recording by the Mason Brothers Quintet. Their psychic connection comes across in their remarkable call-and-response exchanges on striking originals like the surging modal number "24/7," the aggressively swinging, hard-boppish "Outside In," the poignant waltz-time ballad "Gone Home," the evocative "Evil Eye," and the stirring title track. "There is a lot of ending the other person's sentences when we play together," admits Brad. "We enjoy creating in the moment, that thing of, 'Oh, you're going to take it there? What about here then?' We like bouncing ideas back and forth to help take the music in new directions." Special guest Chris Potter joins the Mason brothers on tenor sax for two exhilarating romps through the John Coltrane-inspired "Stage Pints" (a clever anagram for "Giant Steps") and the up-tempo cooker "In the Third Person." Vibist Joe Locke also appears on "Gone Home," and guest guitarist Tim Miller wails with abandon on the darkly alluring "Evil Eye" while the stellar rhythm section of pianist Dave Kikoski, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Antonio Sanchez fuels the proceedings with interactive fireworks. "We had our ideas of who we thought would be the perfect cast for this project, but we didn't think that we'd get them all in one room together at the same time," says Elliot. "And somehow we found a couple of days in September last year that worked for everybody. And when [engineer] James Farber said he was available at the same time, that just put the stamp on it. We knew we had to do it right then." Together they forge a formidable unit on eight scintillating originals by the brothers. "Compositionally, we aimed to balance tradition with something new while staying true to our own voices," says Elliot. "We wanted the album to have a classic feel with a fresh spin to it." They kick off the collection with the kinetic "24/7," which opens with allusions to John Coltrane's "India." Sanchez's polyrhythmic pulse sets the urgent tone as the brothers join for some brisk unisons on the frontline. The solo order of Elliot, Brad, and Kikoski is followed by some fiery exchanges over a 7/4 section at the end of the piece, which was jointly composed by the two brothers. "I think that whole modal Trane-Chick Corea-Woody Shaw style of playing has been a huge influence on us," says Brad. "I know we both are fueled by the same recordings that include a Coltrane-esque high-energy, tension-and-release style of soloing." "Stage Pints" opens with a furious trumpet-drums breakdown between Brad and Sanchez, who whips up a whirlwind of energy on the kit. The melody is essentially Coltrane's "Giant Steps" played backwards and over the regular chord changes to that Trane staple. Elliot solos with verve over the myriad of changes before Potter enters with a thoughtful, inspired tenor solo. Says Elliot, "It sounds very computer-like when I explain it but this piece is actually something that just happened when I was looking at the chart and started singing it backwards. So it was more of a musical impulse than an intellectual process. I kept the chords the same way and played the melody backwards. That's just how I heard it." Adds Brad, "'Giant Steps' is one of those pieces that we would practice every day together at Berklee. It started as an exercise to navigate through the different tonal centers, and now has become a foundation that we just enjoy creating from." "Two Sides, One Story" opens with a tender bass theme backed by sparse piano accompaniment and percussive colorations underneath. This light, peaceful vibe gives way to a loping mid-tempo swing groove which triggers some aggressive soloing from the brothers, first Elliot on bass trumpet followed by Brad on flugelhorn. "The concept of the piece is that it's the same melody played in two different attitudes," says Elliot. "The first time around it's played passively and the second time it's played aggressively. There's definitely a darker side that emerges in the second half which is brought out with some different undertones going on with the chords. And we had to practice that as a band in rehearsal to get that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing to come out in this piece. And that carries on into the solo section too. First it has this passive thing where we're kind of gliding around a little bit on it, not playing too much, and then suddenly it goes into this split personality thing. That was the concept, to exhibit two extreme sides in one piece. But within the melody it's just supposed to be the same story, like where someone's telling you it nicely and suddenly they're shouting it at you." Adds Brad, "As it relates to Elliot and myself, it's two people saying the same thing, coming from the same place. But even though we may love the same music, we have a different way of playing. If we played very similar, it wouldn't work. The fact that we have these different sides in our own playing, I think, helps us to take the music in slightly different directions." "Evil Eye" is an evocative piece that was originally commissioned in 2001 by the Brooklyn Museum to accompany a short, black & white silent film by German filmmaker Hans Richter. As Elliot explains, "We performed it on stage with the film playing behind us at the Museum, which was really an awesome experience. The music just stuck in our heads and we updated it to fit the vibe of the record. So it evolved to where it is now." Elliot on bass trumpet, Brad on flugel carry the melancholy minor key theme as guitarist Tim Miller comps and pianist Kikoski arpeggiates gently behind him. The brothers blend magically on the frontline as the piece develops, engaging in some loose call-and-response over the darkly alluring theme. Miller erupts with a heroic solo before the brothers individually get to strut their stuff on this free-flowing number. "Gone Home" is a gentle number underscored by Sanchez's sensitive brushwork. Joe Locke contributes a particularly luminous vibes solo here while the Mason brothers exhibit some remarkable telepathy, completing each other's statements in their easy call-and-response on this affecting ballad. "This piece means a lot to us because we left our whole family in England to first study, and now live in America," says Elliot. "So we're at a point now where we're not sure what to call home-here or England-as we've now been in America for half our lives. We definitely reflect on our life story when playing this piece." "Outside In" is an aggressively swinging hard bopper built on the Mason brothers' telepathically tight harmony lines. Brad solos first, followed by Elliot, and bassist Colley kicks in a potent solo of his own on this swaggering number. "That was one we wrote together," says Elliot. "It's actually harder than it sounds to compose something together because as soon as you get an idea you want to finish it. But we started it when we were home, actually, in England, together. We were at our parents' house and just started playing some stuff. One of us came up with a line, the other came up with a counterline. So between us, we kind of came up with this tune. And before we even came up with the line, we wanted the feeling that came out of that tune-just to be something more in the classic realm. So it naturally just kind of transpired into a blues." "Boots" is an intriguing modal vehicle that was actually co-written by the Mason brothers back in 1996. Says Brad, "That was on our little demo that we put together when we first got to New York. We kind of threw it out there just to get our names out and hustle some gigs. And even though it was an old composition we still felt that with the surroundings it still blended in." Sanchez unleashes a ferocious solo on this urgent number, showcasing his monstrous chops and keen instincts on the kit. "We both went to school with Antonio at Berklee," says Brad. "He's always been an amazing musician. He can just take you to the next level with his technique but his musical decisions just feel so correct all the time. He's constantly aware of the big picture. We wanted to give him a spot where he could just do his thing and we found it on 'Boots.'" The collection concludes with the up-tempo burner "In the Third Person," which has the brothers deftly juggling three independent lines with saxophonist Potter. The piece culminates in some fiery exchanges between the three horn players and pianist Kikoski. "We just wanted to let Dave have space to do his thing with the chords I had given him at the end, and the next thing you know he just took it to another realm," says Elliot. Dave just brought so much musicality to the whole project. He's one of our favorite musicians, let alone piano players. Just from his comping, you can hear the depth of his knowledge. There's a lot of communication and interaction on this album, if you throw something out there with this rhythm section, you will have many answers to your question sent instantly back. This conversational improv helped us explore our overall consciousness of being in the moment." The sons of musicians-their father Barry played trumpet and trombone while their mother Christine Vance was a jazz singer-Elliot and Brad Mason grew up in a household where the music of Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington was regularly heard. Brad Mason (born on July 24, 1973) began trumpet lessons with his father at age five and piano lessons at age nine. He played both instruments at school and outside recitals. By age 14, he was performing in dance halls, theaters, clubs, and pubs and by age 17 was a featured performer at John Dankworth's Wavendon Jazz School. In 1991, he came to the United States to study on a full tuition scholarship at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He received the Clark Terry Award in recognition of outstanding performance abilities from Berklee in both 1994 and 1995. After graduating from Berklee, Brad moved to New York City in 1996 and has since been a ubiquitous figure on the scene, performing with a variety of jazz and pop artists. Elliot Mason (born on January 13, 1977) began trumpet lessons with his father at age four, at seven he switched to trombone and took up the piano. By age eleven he was performing in dance halls, theaters, clubs, and pubs. At age 15, he won the national Daily Telegraph Young Jazz Soloist Award and was also featured at John Dankworth's Wavendon Jazz School. By age 16, he left England to join his brother at Berklee on a full scholarship. In 1994, Elliot won the prestigious Frank Rosolino Award for outstanding trombone performance abilities and the following year won the Slide Hampton Award at Berklee. After graduating from Berklee in 1996, he moved to New York City with his brother and became an in-demand trombonist and bass trumpet player. Though the Mason Brothers Quintet ' Two Sides, One Story has been long in the making, it stands as one of the most fully-realized debuts to come along in some time. And it points to promising things to come from these talented siblings.