“Man, I was so shy in Quincy Conserve,” he recalls, “that I always hid behind sunglasses on stage. I didn’t want the audience to see me and I didn’t want to see the audience.”
Denys Mason (aka Dennis Mason) was born in Wellington on 9 April 1947, his mother Ihapera (Ngāti Tukorehe) came from the Kapiti Coast, his father Puohooho (Te Atiawa) was born at Parihaka Pā in Taranaki. He left school at 16 to serve a carpentry apprenticeship, with no musical aspirations until two years later when a family guest from Christchurch, Dean Whaitiri, gave him a few lessons on the tenor saxophone.
Looking back, Mason says, “I started to get the hang of it within a week. My parents had a Stan Getz album with ‘Blowing In The Wind’ on it and I learned it note-for-note, all three-four minutes of it.” A recital to the household impressed everyone, not least Dean Whaitiri. Back in Christchurch, he sent Denys a Selmer tenor saxophone with a note, “pay me when you can”. Just over a year later Mason auditioned for Quincy Conserve.
In Quincy Conserve the shy, inexperienced saxophonist played with some of New Zealand’s most experienced and acclaimed musicians, notably fellow saxophonist Johnny McCormick, pianist Rufus Rehu, drummer Bruno Lawrence and band leader Malcolm Hayman.
“Man, I was so shy in Quincy Conserve,” says Mason, “that I always hid behind sunglasses on stage.”
Resident at Wellington’s Downtown Club, Quincy Conserve played to packed houses six nights a week and impressed producer Howard Gable, who contracted them as HMV’s in-house band, backing the likes of Allison Durbin and Craig Scott, and during Mason’s tenure recording two Quincy Conserve albums and half a dozen singles. Taking breaks from the Downtown Club, they twice undertook national tours to back Durbin, the second a double bill with Larry’s Rebels.
Quincy Conserve split up at the end of 1971 (although they reformed within months) and Mason’s next band was a wild bunch called Arkastra featuring Mason, Andy Anderson (vocals and percusssion), Harry Leki (guitar), Peter Blake (keyboards), Paul Read (bass) and Tom Swainson (drums). Boasting a far more eclectic repertoire than Quincy Conserve (covering Allen Toussaint, Baby Huey, Dr John, the Doors, Edgar Winter and Frank Zappa), Arkastra had a residency at Lucifer’s, a somewhat sleazy nightclub renowned for ignoring the liquor licensing laws and with a closed-eyes policy towards the smoking of cannabis. “It was a wild place,” Mason concurs, “and it was a wild band.” Too wild to last, they fell apart in January 1973.
Mason had conquered his shyness by now and had sung harmonies and the occasional lead vocal in Arkastra. Wellington entrepreneur Ray Johns was impressed enough to commission Mason to form a resident band for his new nightclub, The Cabin (aka The Entertainer’s Club). The Section featured Mason on saxophones, lead vocals and percussion, guitarist John O’Connor, Rufus Rehu on keyboards, bassist Frits Stigter and drummer Chris Fox. When Rehu and Fox departed in 1974, replaced by Bob Smith and Tom Swainson respectively, the band was renamed Redeye.
The Section/Redeye seldom performed outside Wellington but they were one of the capital’s most popular bands of the era, supporting BB King, Osibisa (twice) and the Jackson Five, and Redeye was the house band on TVNZ’s Ready To Roll weekly pop music show. EMI also utilised the band for recording sessions, notably Mark Williams, Sharon O’Neill, Tina Cross, and Kim Hart. Unfortunately, Redeye’s own recordings didn’t fare so well; there were three singles (‘Who Said That’ and ‘He’s My Man’ both written by Mason, and ‘Little Miss Lonely Heart’ by Bob Smith) and a self-titled 1977 album.
Mason says, “As well as our obligations to Ray Johns, EMI and Ready To Roll, another reason Redeye didn’t play outside Wellington was Frits’s commitment to his nine-to-five, but the final straw was when the album came out. EMI refused to bankroll a tour or even support it in any great way. All they gave us towards promotion was a heap of unfolded album covers for shop displays. We figured ‘why bother?’ and that was it for Redeye.” They disbanded in April 1978.
After Redeye, stints with ‘The Rocky Horror Show’, Larry Morris, Rough Justice, and John Rowles followeD
Mason was recruited almost immediately by musical director Dave Fraser for Stewart Macpherson’s production of The Rocky Horror Show. The show ran for 10 weeks around New Zealand and then Mason was part of the Larry Morris Band as support act on David Bowie’s first New Zealand tour. A stint followed with Rick Bryant’s Rough Justice and then a national tour with John Rowles.
“I have very rarely been out of work,” Mason says, “and most of the time the work has come to me, rather than me chasing it up. Sometimes it has been just filling in here or a session there, forming a nightclub band for six months or joining a band for three months. It’s all been an education.”
In 1980 he played with the Rodger Fox Big Band at the Montreux Jazz Festival and in Singapore, New York and Los Angeles. Back in Wellington, entrepreneur Geoff Turner asked Mason to form a band for his new nightclub, Chips. Named Scouts, the band featured Mason, guitarist Kevin Bayley, keyboardist Wayne Mason, bassist Clinton Brown and drummer Ross Burge. One night several months into the residency Denys was noticed by Renee Geyer, who had just landed in Wellington to kick off her first New Zealand tour, promoted by Geoff Turner. “That man,” she said to Turner, pointing to Denys, “is coming on tour with me.”
“At the end of the New Zealand tour,” Mason says, “Renee invited me to do a three-week tour in Australia and while I was over there I ran into Sharon O’Neill, who I’d recorded with in Wellington. She had a tour coming up and so I went from Renee to Sharon and back again. I toured with both of them, in Australia and New Zealand, for, I dunno, the next five-six years I suppose.”
There were other gigs – in 1984 he joined Auckland band Cheek Ta Cheek for a spell and in 1986 he spent time with Dennis O’Brien’s Soul Filets in Wellington. There were occasional television appearances and production duties, notably with Aotearoa, Dread Beat & Blood, and on Moana and the Moahunters’ 1990 release, ‘Black Pearl’.
In March 1987 he formed the 358’s, recruiting three young players from the Wellington School of Music – guitarist Lance Su’a, bassist Roger Ward and drummer Greg Crayford. In the 358’s Mason, whose preferred instrument had been the alto saxophone, now added the soprano saxophone.
“By this stage,” Mason explains, “I was into meditation and numerology and positive thinking. When we started out we sat down and agreed that we would only play stuff that we all wanted to play, rather than what we thought the audience might want us to play. If one of us didn’t want to do it, we didn’t do it. We re-arranged all the songs to suit us, from Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley to Luther Vandross to Donny Hathaway and Van Morrison.”
The band secured a Monday night residency at The Oaks Brasserie which proved so popular it evolved into seven nights a week. “During that first year,” Mason says proudly, “we each earned $45,000. I don’t think many New Zealand musicians were making that sort of money at the time.”
In mid-1988, with Darren Ormsby and Paul Ewing replacing Ward and Crayford, the 358’s took on a residency in Queenstown during the three-month ski season. They shifted to Auckland in September 1988, disbanding in June 1990. Two months later Mason moved to Australia, where he has remained ever since, mostly in Sydney.
In August 1990 Mason moved to Australia, where he has remained ever since
The 1990s were particularly fruitful for Mason. He was once again Renee Geyer’s horn player of choice and he twice toured Australia with Wendy Matthews. In 1993 he toured Australia and New Zealand with Margaret Urlich, and then New Zealand with Annie Crummer (including her support slot at Paul McCartney’s Western Springs concert). In Sydney he teamed up with the erstwhile Newton Hoons, Chris Green and Mike Russell, in Vertical Take Off, and with Mark Williams became part of an occasional collective known as Toni Nation. On call for concerts, tours and recording sessions, artists he has worked with in Australia include Wendy Matthews, Christine Anu, Tommy Emmanuel, Tim Finn and Jon Stevens.
In the 2000s, raising a new family, Mason has slowed down a little and he recently shifted close to Huskisson in southern NSW, although he still fronts his own occasional combo to keep his playing and vocal chops sharp. “In Australia I have always maintained the same principles that we had in the 358’s,” he says. “I only ever sing and play songs that I want to sing and play.”