Jazz trio's debut album hints at tough issues

When Robert Mason played in the jazz band in high school in Gahanna, his teacher would let him borrow CDs from her office. He’d listen to them while traveling, furthering his jazz education and setting the path for his future. 

Mason, who plays piano and organ, graduated from Ohio State in 2015 with a degree in jazz studies, and while at OSU he formed the Robert Mason Trio, which features Willie Barthel III on drums and John Phillip Allen on bass. On Sunday, Dec. 8, the group will release its debut album, State of Soul, at Upper Cup Coffee in Gahanna. 

Mason, Barthel and Allen recorded five original songs and four standards over two sessions at Vaughan Studios, but rather than rehearse them beforehand, Mason sent out the charts for the songs and then improvised with the trio in the studio, using live takes as the final versions heard on State of Soul. 

“We have so many influences. There's R&B and hip-hop… we kind of infuse everything we've grown up listening to,” said Mason, 27. “One of the things we've always gotten compliments on performing live was that we were so young and energetic, and we always sounded like we had fun playing together. So I wanted to have the spirit of a youthful, energetic album, but also wanted to maintain the tradition and some of the elements I heard growing up, listening to jazz here in Columbus.”

Even though the songs are instrumental, the titles hint at topics that were on Mason’s mind when he was writing the tunes. Mason wrote “Missing Amber,” for instance, during the time that Amber Evans went missing. “I was really moved by how much she was active in the community, and I was fortunate to be able to give a copy of the album to her father,” Mason said. 

“He Does Great Things” is a worship tune (Mason helps lead the worship team at Flintridge Community Church), whereas “No More Walls” came about during a time when President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border was heating up in the news. “I wanted to write something that expressed how I felt about not accepting others, and trying to be more open minded,” he said. 

Mason has also been performing with fo/mo/deep for about a year, and he plays in Soul Revival, as well. “It keeps me on my toes, for sure,” he said.