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The Musical Cornucopia of the Jazz Mandolin Project: An Interview with the JMP’s Jamie Masefield

By Brian L. Knight

Jamie Masefield’s Jazz Mandolin Project is at it again. After spending most of 1998 on the road and playing its unique blend of jazz, bluegrass and rock & roll, the Burlington, Vermont’s Jazz Mandolin Project is celebrating the arrival of 1999 with the release Tour De Flux (Accurate Records). Consisting of eight strikingly original and genre-defying tunes that were recorded live in the studio, Tour De Flux features the mandolin and tenor banjo playing of Jamie Masefield; the drumming of Phish’s Jonathan Fishman; and the upright bass playing of Chris Dahlgren. Each member has been actively involved in other musical endeavors and adds their personal experiences to Tour De Flux. Masefield draws upon his compositional education to create intellectually appealing tunes; Fishman lends endless of hours of live improvisational experience and Dahlgren brings years of playing jazz bass.

VR: What was the first instrument you played while growing up?

JM: I played the tenor banjo. It’s tuned in the mandolin fiddle family. I started when I was eleven and took lessons every Saturday for seven years until it was time to go to UVM.

VR: That’s somewhat of a peculiar instrument to start out on. How did that come about?

JM: Yeah, well I grew up in a musical family. My grandfather was an upright bassist with the Paul Whitman Band, Tommy Dorsey, and people like that , but there were also other musicians all around. At these family functions they were always having these jam sessions that we would run around as little kids having fun, and so these jam sessions mostly revolved around Dixieland. There was a banjo player that was a good friend of the family, and I thought the banjo was great, and I wanted to learn it. That’s how I got started in Jazz. The first things I started learning were old Louis Armstrong tunes.

VR: A couple of years ago (1997 Burlington Jazz Festival) I saw you play with the Stanziolo-Masefield quartet. How did that relationship come about?

JM: When I got up to UVM I immediately fell into this whole bowl of Dixieland jazz players. Vermont really needed a tenor banjo player who could play all these Dixieland tunes. So from the minute go, my freshman year, I was getting picked up at my dorm by these older guys, and taken to gigs and rehearsals. I really spent a lot of time during those first years in Vermont playing Dixieland gigs and then as I got to playing with other musicians at UVM, I found that the mandolin was more compatible with the style of music everyone was playing. I can play that as well as the tenor banjo because they are similar fingerings/similar tunings.

VR: Was Stanziolo one of those people that used to pick you up?

JM: He didn’t actually pick me up, but he was one of the guys I played with, and I really fell in love with Tommy and his playing. To tell you the truth, the first time I saw him play I thought to myself, if I ever get a chance to play with that guy, then I’ve really made it. I would have been content. I would have reached my goals if I could play with that guy. Then in about a year I did start playing with him. We just had such a rapport that we decided that we wanted to do our own separate group other than the Dixieland. At that time I was picking up the tenor guitar which has the same tuning as the tenor banjo, but it gave me an opportunity to kind of move into the swing world more officially, and so we started that quartet that primarily revolves around Benny Goodman swing. As you know, that group is a clarinet, guitar, up right bass and drums. We still play together, but I’ve learned an awful lot about music through Tommy. He’s one of my heroes, and he’s kind of unsung musician in Vermont that not enough people know about, and how wonderful he is.

VR: So when you were up at UVM and everyone else was going down to Nectars, you were playing Dixieland jazz. Did you consider yourself a lone wolf on Redstone Campus?

JM: That’s it! I was doing a very "uncool" type of thing. While they were all running down to Nectars, I was putting on a little bow tie and going to play at some Radisson hotel with these old cats, and really learning a lot of old tunes. I think that my Dixieland playing comes out in my approach with the Jazz Mandolin Project. In Dixieland you have the trumpet, the clarinet, and the trombone all weaving together, and I’ve always loved that weaving together. That’s a Dixieland thing but I also think of it as a classical thing also where the composer has written the music so that all these different parts of the orchestra weave a vine of information. I can kind of see how my influences in Dixieland are embedded in what we do in the Project.

VR: When you say "weave" is that sort of an emphasis on all the instruments at once instead of a solo?

JM: Yes. I mean that exactly. Sure there are plenty of moments when there is one guy who’s obviously soloing and doing his thing, but there are a lot of other moments where we are all working together within the moment, giving and taking little ideas, and trying to make them blossom as a group. So everyone’s putting in their bits of information, and I see that as a connection to the Dixieland and classical music.

VR: Did your Dixieland playing in Vermont eventually lead you to playing in New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band?

JM: Yes, they came to town and played at Memorial [Auditorium] years ago, and I heard their banjo player, Narvin Kimball, who I guess is probably close to ninety now. He blew me away, and I decided I was going to meet that guy after that gig no matter what. I walked right back stage and introduced myself, and told him I was a tenor banjo player and he invited me to New Orleans. He said, "you come to New Orleans, and you call me up and will get together and play and talk about music." About a year later I did. I drove to New Orleans with a buddy in a jeep with no top on it from Vermont, and called Narvin Kimball up at this number he had given me, and he remembered me. He invited me over for a dinner he made, Jambalaya. We played banjos together, and then we went to Preservation Hall, and I played half the night with the band while he sat on the floor with a bunch of hot chicks. He coached me as we were going through it, and that was another highlight of my musical career, playing in Preservation Hall. That was just a wonderful moment, and actually the last time we were in New Orleans this fall, I went down there and sat in with the band.

VR: What else is happening for you musically?

JM: In December and January, the band hasn’t been playing too of often so I have been getting out a bit. Do you know Doug Perkins and Smokin’ Grass? Well, we are pickin’ buddies and we have started this thing when we are both in town, we play at Muddy Waters (Burlington) on Tuesday nights.

VR: What kind of tunes have you been playing?

JM: It is a lot of pickin’. Mostly jazz tunes and a couple of bluegrass tunes too.

VR: What are some your personal favorite Burlington, Vermont bands?

JM: There is a surf band called Barbacoa. I really like those guys. I got their tape and I think their arrangements are really good. I bought a Dick Dale CD just because I got into Barbacoa. I got to tell you, I thought the Barbacoa was better. I know Dick Dale is supposed to be the father of surf music, but I like them a lot better. I have also always been a fan of the Invisible Jet.

VR: When I think of the mandolin and jazz, David Grisman’s "Dawg" music immediately comes to mind. Do you share similarities with "Dawg" music?

JM: Well, not too much. He hasn’t been that much of an influence for me. I did go through a period in college where I did collect his CDs and I loved the music. I think of his music as more the combination of bluegrass, gypsy music and swing jazz. I think that the music that we are making more of a combination of jazz, rock & roll and classical. I feel that Grisman worked with jazz in the swing context and I think that we are doing something different with it. He is certainly the father of playing jazz with the mandolin.

VR: You studied with Ernie Stires. How has he helped you in your musical development?

JM: He has helped me in the field of composition. Writing tunes. He convinced me to learn how to play the piano and use that as a tool for writing songs. That really opened up a whole new world for me through working at the piano.

VR: Was it difficult to learn the piano?

JM: Yeah, it still is. I am no good at the piano, but I know how to use it as a tool to write songs and I use it quite a bit in that way. He has really opened up my ears to classical music and having a richer understanding harmonically.

VR: Do you think Stires had the same impact on you as he did on Trey Anastasio?

JM: I don’t know exactly what his impact was on Trey. The people who come to him and work hard with him over years - he opens up there minds to all kinds of music. He hones the craft of writing songs. For Ernie, it is not ok to sit down with a guitar and quickly create a piece with four chords in it. Get a concept in your head and then explore every facet of it. Find out what is best. You craft the song. It is a multifaceted work that you do. It is more of a thing of really analyzing your concept and looking at in every different way how it will work best. That is what we come out of the School of Ernie Stires with.

VR: He makes it a labor of love........

JM: Yeah. The notion of composing has lost a lot of value in our time. In our generation, a lot of people say that they are writing tunes, but very few of those people are, with a pencil and paper, writing tunes. It is quick stuff and Ernie is much more about making it a labor of love - your right.

VR: Besides the lineup changes, how has this new album changes from your previous album?

JM: It has been two years since our last album came out. I have worked quite a bit on my composing ability since that album. The songs have more depth to them. They are not as naive as the first types of tunes that I was writing. The CD has more of a jazz feel to it. Partly due to the tunes that we are playing and partly due to the presence of an upright bass, with Chris Dahlgren.

VR: Why was there a lineup change(For the last album, Jazz Mandolin Project consisted of Masefield, drummer Gabe Jarrett and bassist Stacy Starkweather)?

JM: It felt that the configuration, as it was, had said everything that it was going to say. It wasn’t as fun and exciting as it had been in the beginning. We needed to move on to new challenges.

VR: I guess the word "Project" lends to the concept of a continuously changing lineup.......

JM: When I first got it going and used that name, I was still using different bass players and drummers. That was the whole concept behind it. It was evolving thing and I couldn’t promise that the lineup will always be the same. It is all about playing jazz with the mandolin.

VR: Where does the band Bad Hat ( Jamie Masefield, Trey Anastasio, Jonathan Fishman) fit into the flow chart of the Jazz Mandolin Project?

JM: I was at a point when I needed a drummer and I knew that the Phish guys were off tour. I called up Fishman and asked him if he wanted to play a few gigs. He said "yeah". then I saw Trey and talked to him about joining in also for these handful of gigs. We had a couple of rehearsals and Bad Hat was a thing that we did a number of times. It was a real wonderful collaboration.

VR: Through some of your tapes, I heard you perform Miles Davis’ "So What". Does your song Milestones in the Sunshine have any relation to Miles Davis?

JM: That was written with Miles Davis’ tune, Milestones, in mind. There is a wonderful solo that Cannonball Adderly plays and the first notes are quite famous. It is always been a favorite solo of mine and I wanted to write a song that incorporated that melody.

VR: Is your favorite era of Miles Davis the Cannonball Adderly/John Coltrane period?

JM: No. I love it all.

VR: With the Jazz Mandolin Project being associated with the experimental sounds of the Knitting Factory and having a strong background in jazz, I was wondering if the Jazz Mandolin Project possessed any free-jazz characteristics?

JM: There is plenty of places within our music that have open dialogues where there is nothing planned and we try to create something within that moment that will be unique for that show. Just let if fly and see what happens. That is what makes us eager to play show after show. Sometimes you play the melody of a song every night, but you have a chance to create something new and special that makes you look forward to playing each night.

VR: Going along those lines, does your song "Collage" represent that approach to music?

JM: The "Collage" got started with the hopes that it would supply a place within a show where we would create something completely spontaneously. Getting the information to base the song on from the audience was a sure way to keep us on our toes. It has also been a great way to have contact with the audience and make each gig unique. They tell us what the theme is going to be and we have to scratch our heads right in front of them and make something right there. It has been wonderful tool for exploring and making a connection with the audience.

VR: So somebody provides a visual image and you try to create the image musically?

JM: Someone, one time, yelled out Ansel Adams and we just started making this stuff up and it was all about Ansel Adams. There have been so many wild topics that we have worked on. It has been hilarious.

VR: Sings like The Phoenicians, Lithuanian Devil Dance, Stockholm Smokepipe, Tuang Guru, Chapeau, and Mandonean seem to have a multi-cultural aspect to them. Is that aspect also reflected in the music?

JM: The mandolin has a lot of limiting factors, but it also has features that open a lot of doors for me. The main door is that I consider the mandolin to be the folk instrument of the world. Almost anywhere you go in the world, there is some mandolin-like related instrument that has been part of the folk music of that part of the world. That gives me a wonderful opportunity to draw upon all of those different things. That is one of the things that makes the Project unique: it gives a lot of information to work with. You are right, all of those tunes are from all different parts of the world. I am sure that there will be many other songs in the future that will draw upon different places. That is one of the things that keeps me excited - you can always dig up something new and wild from some bizarre, exotic location.

VR: With all these different cultures, spending time in NYC and being on the road all of the time; is there a fear of Vermont losing you?

JM: No. The matter of fact, the more I travel, the more I find out that Vermont is the best. there have been plenty towns, cities and areas that we have gone to, where I felt that it has been really great. But none of them, would I put above where I live now. I live on a tree farm, way out in the middle of nowhere. For me to go out traveling for month and to come back to a place like this is the best thing in the whole world.

Since this interview, Jamie Masefield and the Jazz Mandolin Project have come out of the studio with yet another great effort, Xenoblast (Blue Note Records).  Any of the Jazz Mandolin Project’s albums are an enjoyable listen they come highly reccomended. Go out and buy the new album. Better yet, go see the Jazz Mandolin Project live . You will not be dissapointed!  Check out more of JMP at www.jazzmandolinproject.com