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Jazz composer Sean Mason on his album 'The Southern Suite'


With the festive season on its way, jazz composer Sean Mason is thinking about past holidays spent with his family.

SEAN MASON: You know, I remember my grandmother dancing in the house all the time. We have a lot of great pictures and VCR videos of her dancing.

RASCOE: He says his grandmother and mother would play Ray Charles and Duke Ellington records during their get-togethers. At the time, Mason was more interested in sports, but that changed with age.


RASCOE: At 13, he committed to playing piano. He attended college a few years later at UNC as a music major and later went to Juilliard. His debut album, "The Southern Suite," is out now.


RASCOE: Sean Mason joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program.

MASON: Thank you for having me, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So your album is entirely instrumental, but the music does a lot of talking. Like, what story or stories are being told through this album?

MASON: Well, first, it's a celebration of life, and I wanted to wrap the listener as if I'm giving them a hug. The album is truly embodying Southern hospitality, but like anything in the South, it's very layered. You know, it's also a personal story that delves with these kind of two opposing visions or forces, if you will - traditionalism and innovation.

RASCOE: When you say that it's a celebration of life, but then you say it's about the - kind of the conflict between, like, you know, that earlier kind of swing - I could see it on, like, an older TV show, but then this is also a modern album. So how do you deal with that juxtaposition?

MASON: What I mean by celebration of life is one, just at least kind of coming to some kind of agreement of what life is. I mean, every time somebody says that statement, for some reason, the sentiment becomes extremely overly optimistic. And for me, I want it to be a candid celebration of life, which means honoring pleasure and suffering. Disagreements we may have is celebrating different points of view. The - just the differences of musical styles that I grew up listening to - appreciation of our ancestors but also the narrative forward and pushing the music forward.

RASCOE: The instruments you use - the piano, horns, percussion - they seem to kind of have their own motifs that recur in different songs.


RASCOE: Do you think of each of the instruments as kind of, like, a character, like, with their own points of view?

MASON: Yeah. Each instrument and their voice is living because there's actual human beings playing the instruments. And in most music today, there's not human beings playing the instrument. And that's not a judgment. It's just an observation. And with this album, since I had the opportunity to showcase human beings playing instruments, I wanted to make sure that each instrument, you can follow throughout the entire album. And each human being - it's like a conversation. And highlighting the life force behind that instrument was something important for me. So there was a lot of polyphony - basically meaning the harmony of different voices playing different things together.


MASON: Polyphony was important in New Orleans music. You hear it on the street for second line, and it was originally - it's most known for the clarinet, the trombone and the trumpet in New Orleans-style music, where they're all marching, playing marching band music in the streets of New Orleans, but they're all playing different things, but it sounds really good together. I mean, you listen to the early Louis Armstrong records, and you hear that clearly.

RASCOE: OK. And so how have the South and the Black church shaped your sound? I know you grew up in Charlotte, N.C. You know, I grew up in Durham. What is the influence of that place in your music?

MASON: Well, the South taught me the importance of the blues. To me, the blues is what makes us human.


MASON: It's approaching life in a very difficult way but to keep my head up in a certain way. There was just so many struggling experiences of growing up where I grew up. The early musical experience that I had taught me how to keep my head up through these hard times, through the wisdom of my grandmothers, the wisdom of the church mothers, the wisdom of everybody from the South - that things are messed up, but we continue to push on. And that blues feeling is what I want to embody in all the music I make - to have the essence of the blues.


RASCOE: I mean, that's so beautiful. Your song, "Lullaby" - this is a song about your grandmother?

MASON: Yeah. The impulse for writing it came from my grandmother's passing, but it's a song about life, but the impulse for me writing it definitely was from that place that I was in - a very nuanced emotion. And you could hear it in the trumpet. I asked him to play with more of a breathier sound. Throughout the whole course of the song, there's no solos. I wanted to make sure we maintained an equilibrium and a balance of presence.


MASON: The whole objective of this song is to be more present in where we are and to breathe. And that's the main themes of this song - and being able to deal with that grief in a very healthy way and to acknowledge it and to move past it and to learn.

RASCOE: Well, how old are you, if you don't mind me asking?

MASON: I'm 25.

RASCOE: So you young. Yeah, I mean, you a baby. So (laughter), I mean, as you've spoken about so eloquently, you know, jazz has this very rich history, you know, in the U.S., you know, going back to New Orleans in the 19th century. You have this honor and respect and a really - a focus on the history of this. But it seems like that's so different than now, where everybody's kind of focused on what's new and what's the latest and - you know, that's what everyone's focused on.

MASON: Yeah, I mean the disguise of innovation is attractive 'cause you don't really have to study. There's nothing to build upon. There's no foundation. You can say anything is innovative. I just grew up in a way that I was taught to respect my elders that came before me whether those elders are musical elders who are dead, like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. You pick - you know, you name your pick. I do want to study history. I do want to know what's going on. And truly, I care about the integrity and the deepness and the soul of the music itself.


MASON: I think I'm just grateful for the gift to listen to a song today and somehow connect it to Cab Calloway, for example, what Coleman Hawkins was doing and then what Bach was doing in the 18th century. Sometimes, I'm able to see these kind of through lines, and I wanted to make those through lines evident through my compositions and the album itself.

RASCOE: One of the last songs on your album is called "Closure." Tell us about that song. But also, what closure have you found?

MASON: "Closure" is really just a gospel song. Speaking about Bach again, it's also kind of winking an eye at baroque music and contrapuntal music. The closure I found is a deeper appreciation of what it means to be human. It's just an interesting time we're in. It seems like we're going in a way where human life is being devalued, and the human expression is being devalued. And the ability for somebody to express themselves is under so much scrutiny right now, especially musically. And this album is just a - me putting my foot down for the fight for humanity, the fight for human expression.


RASCOE: That's musician and another North Carolina native, Sean Mason, talking about his debut album, "The Southern Suite." Thank you so much for joining us.

MASON: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAN MASON'S "CLOSURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.