Michael Mason and the Exploratory Ensemble: Signal (2004)
It is an uncomfortable thing, indeed, to come across an album that is, for the most part, successful as a contemporary exploration of post bop themes, but which contains a glaring problem with the leader of the ensemble. While flautist Michael Mason has some interesting ideas and an appealingly dark tone, his intonation is annoyingly imperfect and makes Signal something less than an easy listen.
Nowhere is this more evident than on “Mahjong,” where he holds long notes that are either distinctly sharp, or are given the appearance of being so by way of his rather broad vibrato. Similarly his unison lines with trombonist Steve Berry on “Luminary” are just plain painful. Much like guitarist Carlos Santana, whose inability to bend a note into proper pitch has always been an annoying and, at the end of the day, detrimental feature of an artist who, that aside, has demonstrated a unique voice on his instrument, so does Mason’s deficiency make it difficult to enjoy what is, in fact, a somewhat impressive album of contemporary compositions.
Of particular note are drummer Avreeayl Ra, whose muscular approach brings to mind, at times, a young Tony Williams; and Harrison Bankhead, whose round, resonant bass keeps the groove going throughout. On “Amend,” Bankhead and Ra swing fiercely, and Mason acquits himself nicely on a solo that is ripe with ideas; but again, that pitch problem rears its head to mar what would otherwise be a standout track. Pianist Kirk Brown owes something to Tyner, but is less angular, with a smoother overall approach. “Turbulence,” another up-tempo burner, gives Ra a chance to contribute an inventive solo that is part Williams, part Elvin Jones and all Ra.
It is a shame that Mason’s intonation is so inconsistent. On “The Spirit,” a relaxed modal piece, Mason again demonstrates that he has ideas and dexterity to spare. The flute is an instrument that, since the 1960s, has been used all too rarely in jazz although it does seem to be making a comeback of sorts, and artists like Mason should be at the vanguard of a renewed movement; sadly, his deficiencies take too much away from his strengths.
Signal is, in the final analysis, an album that never quite lives up to its aspirations. With solid writing and a top-notch ensemble, this is an album that should be far more successful than it ultimately is; and, sadly, the responsibility has to be placed firmly at the foot of Mason, who needs to spend some time woodshedding before he attempts another recording.
Visit Chicago Sound on the web.
Track Listing: Luminary; Mahjong; Signal; Amend; For Once; Sir James; Turbulence; The Spirit; The Pulse of Life's Heart
Personnel: Michael Mason (flute, piano on