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A Bit of Vermont in the Crescent City: Jazz Mandolin Project

By BK

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is ultimately a celebration of the music of New Orleans. The experience is about visiting the multitude of stages at the fairgrounds and hearing everything from Cajun to Latin to the Blues. In addition to the wealth of local talent, the Jazz Festival allows for national acts to strut their stuff as well. For the 2000 Festival, one such act will be Vermont’s own Jazz Mandolin Project (The other act will be Oysterhead which features Phish’s Try Anastasio, Primus’ Les Claypool and Stewart Copeland – formerly of the Police). Although carving his own musical niche with the Jazz Mandolin Project (JMP), Masefield has a strong affinity for the music of New Orleans. In a 1999 interview with the Vermont Review, Masefield discussed his roots: " 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."

Over the years, JMP has had a continuos flow of players who come through its ranks. In the past, musicians such as Trey Anastasio, Stacey Starkweather, Gabe Jarrett and Jonathan Fishman have been part of the Jazz Mandolin Project experience. The latest incarnation of the band consists of Masefield and two noted New York City musicians - bassist Chris Dahlgren and Ari Hoenig. These three have been working together since the release of 1999’s Tour De Flux (Jon Fishman played on the album and a subsequent mini-tours, but Hoenig has definitely served as JMP drumming mainstay). 2000’s Xenoblast (Blue Note Records) is this trio’s first recording together and it continues with the JMP genre-blending/busting sounds as the album segues from rock and roll to the avant-garde to bluegrass to hard bop and just about everything else. This is best exemplified with the title track, which has a rock and roll rhythm, room for free jazz solo and a melodic breakdown. The tunes "The Milliken Way" "Double Agent" resemble the bluegrass-jazz fusion that is also shared by the likes of Bela Fleck &the Flecktones and David Grisman. "Spiders" is a foray into jazz-fusion circles while "Shaker Hill" has the band stripped down and playing more "New Grass" type sounds. A popular concert favorite, "Igor", brings rock & roll back into the fold.

The album’s final tune, "Hang Ten", features Phish’s Trey Anastasio providing distorting guitar feedback on the album’s most distinctive track. The two share many mutual characteristics: they both attended the University of Vermont, they both blend jazz and rock and roll and most significantly, they both studied under Ernie Stires. In the same interview with the Vermont Review, Masefield discussed Stires’ impact : : "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."

If New Orleans is not a possibility, at least Xenoblast is! Check it out on Blue Note Records. http://www.jazzmandolinproject.com/