On Tuesday, October 3, at the Numerica Performing Arts Center in Wenatchee, WA, pianist Sean Mason (photo above) played a solo performance of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” from Frozen: The Broadway Musical to an audience of middle school students. It was part of the “When You Wish Upon a Star – A Jazz Tribute to 100 Years of Disney” tour, featuring Mason and the House Band of The National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
The arrangement was one Mason used to perform with his trio at Smalls in Greenwich Village before the pandemic. “A lot of people liked it there,” Mason recalled, “and I played it on solo piano for this tour. All the kids were singing along. I never experienced anything like that. Usually when we play at the performing arts centers, it’s mostly adults, and some people bring their kids.”
The 25-year-old Mason will be transporting “When You Wish Upon a Star” to New Jersey this month – on Friday, November 17, as part of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark and on Saturday, November 18, to the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts in Toms River, NJ.
“I’m having a great time playing this music,” Mason said, “because I grew up listening to musical theater. I loved listening to these grand Disney songs with the soprano voices. I picked the songs for the tour, and I arranged the songs in very unique ways. It really does sound like a jazz show. Some of the arrangements are a little more traditional, and some are ‘out there’. I caution the audience: ‘This isn’t your traditional show.’”
And, Mason isn’t your traditional jazz musician. “Traditional and innovation. I’ve always struggled with that,” he said. “I love the ‘20s music, and I love the ‘30s music. That’s why Catherine Russell and I got along so well and played together so many times. We both share that love of blues and old ‘20s and ‘30s music. But I also love everything that’s going on now.”
The idea for the Disney tour, he said, was conceived in 2021. Last year, Mason formed a quintet and recorded an album, The Southern Suite, that was released on Blue Engine Records on October 27, 2023. As a musician, Mason said, “I’d rather not be put into one box. I love stride piano and Jelly Roll Morton, but I also love some of the modern jazz things. This album is kind of a statement in my compositional approach to try to create work that embodies these two things.
“This record is very exciting for me,” he continued. “I’ve spent most of my career in an internship with people four times my age, going on the road with seasoned musicians and kind of playing as a sideman. I learned first-hand how to do everything – recording on so many people’s records and learning how to be in the studio before I recorded my own album. I’m grateful for that experience.”
Reviewing The Southern Suite in the November issue of Jersey Jazz Magazine, Joe Lang wrote that Mason’s tunes, “are wonderfully accessible and seem like old friends after just a few hearings. His charts are well-executed by the band . . . Mason has set the bar at a high level with his first recording as a leader.”
The October 2021 Jersey Jazz featured Mason as a Rising Star. He was tapped by Branford Marsalis to play piano on the soundtrack of the Netflix movie, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Marsalis continues to be a mentor. “We talk regularly,” Mason said. “He helped and consulted on the album.” Mason’s quintet on the recording features saxophonist Chris Lewis, trumpeter Tony Glausi, bassist Felix Moseholm, and drummer Domo Branch.
On the “When You Wish Upon a Star” tour, he is joined by vocalists Sasha Dobson and Kim Nalley, trumpeter Anthony Hervey, drummer Ahmad Johnson, bassist Corentin Le Hir, and guitarist Alicyn Yaffee. (Hervey was a Jersey Jazz Rising Star in April 2022). In addition to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman”, another Mason Disney favorite is Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”, the theme song from Toy Story. Among other tunes included in the Disney concert are: Frank Churchill and Larry Morey’s “Someday My Prince Will Come”, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and famously recorded by Miles Davis; Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke’s “He’s a Tramp” from Lady and the Tramp; and Al Rinker’s “Everybody Wants to be a Cat” from The Aristocats.
Mason tries to keep an open mind about all different kinds of music. “Right now,” he said, “I’ve been listening to a lot of bluegrass music – a lot of those field recordings of banjo players that (ethnomusicologist) Alan Lomax has done. There’s an album, Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza (Acoustic Disc: 2006) that has all the bluegrass players.” He went to see Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Met. “I’ve been obsessed with that,” he said. “Unbelievable voicing, unbelievable harmony and melody. I’ve been loving that opera.” Then, of course, there are the jazz legends. “Thelonius Monk, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Parker. Those are the typical influences.”
The TD James Moody Jazz Festival performance of “When You Wish Upon a Star” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on November 17 in NJPAC’s Victoria Theater. To order tickets, log onto NJPAC.org/jazz or call 1-888 477-5722. The Grunin Center performance will be at 7 p.m. on November 18 on the venue’s Main Stage. Tickets can be ordered at grunincenter.org or by calling (732) 255-0500. – SANFORD JOSEPHSON
PHOTO BY JUAN PATINO