Next in our new series of interviews with some of Central Ohio’s finest jazz musicians is keyboardist Robert Mason. A Gahanna native, Mason is a 5th year senior at The Ohio State University School of Music where he is pursing a Bachelor’s in Jazz Studies with a minor in Music, Media, and Enterprise. Having played in others’ groups for a couple years, he has recently started playing gigs with his own trio, where he is joined by bassist John Allen and drummer John Suntken. Both of Mason’s band members are leading groups of their own these days, so this is quite the high-powered young trio. Mason was kind enough to answer our questions and give some detailed insight into his background in local jazz, along with info on upcoming shows.
When and why did you start playing music and jazz?
Robert Mason (RM):I originally started taking classical piano lessons when I was in third grade from a couple named Adam and Betsy Grimes. Adam and Betsy really helped me in my early development as a musician. I was also fortunate to have huge support from both my mom and dad, who always made sure I could remain in activities like music while I was in school.
I stopped taking lessons with the Grimes a couple years later when they moved to New York, so there was a large period of time where I stopped having formal training. I joined the jazz band when I was at Gahanna Middle School West because I still loved playing the piano, and this was a way I could play with other people and not solely by myself. I quickly began to love jazz because I could improvise. I felt a sense of freedom when performing because I wasn’t always confined to what was written on the page.
While performing in jazz bands all the way throughout high school, I learned a lot from my director Kelly Shellhammer. Kelly Shellhammer was a huge influence for me because she helped give me the confidence that I could play this music after high school, and she encouraged me to apply for the jazz studies program at Ohio State. She would let me borrow CD’s from her office and I would pop them in the car while driving home from school. Kelly gave me my first CD, Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock, which is still one of my favorite albums today. She wanted me to better pursue and learn the jazz tradition, so she got me in contact with Columbus legend Mark Flugge, who taught me jazz piano lessons both in high school and most of my time at Ohio State.
Who are some of your main influences in your playing/performing?
RM: My main musical influence comes from Horace Silver. I love listening to him because he swings hard and plays soulfully. Whenever he takes a solo, his lines are singable and you can remember his message long after the song is over. My goal is to try to deliver a worthwhile message like Horace does every time he plays. He also never wrote a bad tune, which I find astonishing. Other artists who have influenced my playing are Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson, and Bud Powell.
What is your fondest musical memory?
RM: My fondest musical memory has to be last spring when I was blessed with the opportunity to perform in China with the Ohio State Jazz Ensemble. This was my first time out of the country, so I was geeked and excited the entire trip. We performed for standing-room venues in Beijing, XinXiang, Wuhan, and Shanghai.
What are you listening to today?
RM: I’m currently checking out Bud Powell’s composition “Dance of the Infidels” from his compilation album, The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1 & 2. I’m also enjoying Oscar Peterson’s Night Train album. Night Train is hands down the best trio album in my opinion.
What inspires you about the Columbus Jazz scene?
RM: The jazz scene here feels like living in a big family. I am inspired by the many great musicians I’ve met so far in Columbus, and many of them have turned out to be exceptional mentors. It’s really cool to learn from your peers and I’m happy I grew up in Columbus. Mark Flugge was a huge influence for me while I was in college. He taught me how to really listen and think critically about every single note I played on the piano. He also helped me strive to become a better person every day.
Over the years, I’ve met some great musicians that have really influenced not only my musicianship, but my character, and how to grow as a man. I really look up to these musicians and this is why I love to play music here.
Your trio recently debuted at Dick’s Den – does the band have any upcoming gigs you’d like to tell us about?
RM: We had an awesome time performing at Dick’s Den in November! Everybody was super busy during the holiday season, so we’re looking forward to playing out again soon. We are playing Jazz Wednesday at Brothers Drake on Wednesday, February 25th, 8-11pm, and we will return to Dick’s Den on Sunday, March 8th, 8pm-midnight.
For some live and studio examples of Robert’s work, check out his Soundcloud page.