Harvey Mason on ‘Chameleon’

Head_Hunters_AlbumSKF NOTE: Listening to Chameleon by Herbie Hancock‘s Headhunters when the song was first released in 1973 was an experience today’s listeners missed. Cutting edge music in 1973, the best of Chameleon — the music, the sounds, the rhythm — are part of today’s music vocabulary.

The Headhunters’ Chameleon was the first time I heard Harvey Mason playing drums. It’s fair to say the Headhunters album put Harvey Mason on the map.

In 1976, Harvey Mason sat with one of the great jazz writers, Leonard Feather, for one of Feather’s signature Down Beat Blindfold Tests. Mr. Feather plays album cuts and his guest reacts to the cuts.

Mr. Mason’s response to Louis Bellson‘s 1975 version of Chameleon caught my eye for a few reasons. First, Harvey Mason tells us how Chameleon — a “group effort” — was written. Second, in a case of double irony, Mason singles out Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers — who plays Chameleon’s signature beer bottle into — as an equal partner in the song’s creation. Yet instead of Bill Summers, Harvey Mason in this Blindfold Test credits Bill Simmons.

Getting Bill Summers’s last name wrong could have happened for many reasons: Harvey Mason could have misspoken. Leonard Feather, or Feather’s tape transcriber, could have heard and transcribed the name wrong. The name might have been botched at Down Beat or at the magazine printer’s. It was nice of Harvey Mason to give Bill Summers credit where credit is due.

Leonard Feather plays Louis Bellson’s 1975 version of Chameleon, and Harvey believes he, Mason, is hearing Maynard Ferguson’s 1974 arrangement of Chameleon — which has drummer Dan D’Imperio. Reading this Blindfold Test in 2016, I was expecting Harvey Mason to identify Louis Bellson. I don’t know if my expectations would have been different in 1976.

At any rate, I enjoyed Mason’s response to Bellson’s Chameleon both before and after Mason knows he has just heard Louis Bellson on drums. And for good measure I am including all three Chameleon versions in chronological order in this post.

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LOUIS BELLSON, Chameleon (from Explosion, Pablo). Louis Bellson, drums; Blue Mitchell, trumpet; Bill Holman, arranger.

Harvey Mason: That’s very familiar. I think that was the first cover of that tune. That was interesting, the way that tune came about. When I was playing with Herbie [Hancock] we were rehearsing for the album and trying to get tunes together. It was really a cohesive unit; we really felt good when we played together. We always carried tape recorders and just started playing and editing the things that we played in rehearsals. We came up with a great tune and put it together and it turn out to be … wow! Unbelievable success.

It was a group effort. Unfortunately, Bill Simmons [sic] was left off a lot of the credit, but he contributed as much as anyone else.

On the version we just listened to, the arrangement is good. I’d give it four stars. It was performed very well. I believe it was Maynard. I hope it was anyway. The drummer I don’t know. It was interesting to hear him play the same pattern that I played on the record. Fine. I really enjoyed it.

Leonard Feather: Did you know it was recorded by Louis Bellson?

HM: If it was Louis Bellson, then it was Blue Mitchell on trumpet, not Maynard Ferguson. It was interesting to hear Louis. Beautiful, Louis!

Source: Blindfold Test: Harvey Mason, by Leonard Feather, Down Beat, February 12, 1976

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