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Published: 2000/10/15
by Daniel Morrell

Jazz Mandolin’s Progress: An Interview with Jamie Masefield

Jazz Mandolin Project has undergone many changes since its inception in 1994. The only constant in their ever-evolving sound and shifting lineup is front man Jamie Masefield. His devotion to his craft has allowed JMP to floor audiences around the country, as well as gain notoriety among the typically staunch realm of jazz critics, as evidenced by their release of “Xenoblast on the historic Blue Note Records label.

Jamie’s ability to mesh an understanding of classical composition and jazz improvisation with rock sensibility allows the listener to be able to appreciate the formality of the music while still forcing them to move to the rhythms. All of this being said, he is also one of the most down to earth and genuine performers I have ever met. I got a chance to sit down with Jamie after his set at the Grassroots Music Festival in Cockeysville, MD. For updated information on his current tour and future projects visit http://www.jazzmandolinproject.com

DM: The mandolin is typically associated with bluegrass music, but you started out playing Dixieland jazz. What turned you on to Dixieland as opposed to bluegrass?

JM: When I was little, I didn’t really hear much bluegrass and I heard a lot of traditional New Orleans jazz. I come from a musical family, and there were a lot of family functions where people would be playing and everyone would be having a good time. So that’s the sound I heard when I was really little. The tenor banjo was the instrument that was being played, and I just thought it was great and I asked for one for Christmas. I started taking lessons with this close friend of the family. It lasted all throughout high school, every Saturday at one o’clock, from age 11 to age 18. Then I went to the University of Vermont, and I started picking up the mandolin, which is tuned similarly to the banjo. So, all of these kind of old jazz techniques I learned on the banjo, I could bring over to the mandolin. I’m an oddity in the mandolin world in that I don’t have that bluegrass background at all, and what I’ve been playing from the beginning is various forms of jazz.

DM: Who was influential back in the beginning? Were you listening to the early mandolin or banjo specifically?

JM: Well, there was one banjo player, who had been my big hero. He played with Duke Ellington. His name was Ellmore Snowden, and he made one album in the ’60’s called “Harlem Banjo.” Its a fairly rare album, but he was the first tenor banjo player that I ever heard who was really improvising over jazz tunes. I’ve heard a lot of tenor banjo players who have nice variations to melodies and they go through all their variations every time. But this guy was a real jazz musician and I played along to his record and learned all of his licks. Then I discovered the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the banjo player in that band really influenced me as well. His name was Narvin Kimble. He’s got to be in his late 80’s or early 90’s now. I understand that he just had a stroke in the last year, so I don’t think he’s on the road any more, unfortunately. But I got to know him, and we did a bit of playing together. So those are the banjo guys who really inspired me. On tenor banjo, not the five string like Bela Fleck.

DM: When you guys started off, you were a coffeehouse band, right?

JM: Yeah, that’s where the project started. I was playing in a number of different groups in the Burlington area. I was playing the tenor banjo and the tenor guitar in some swing groups and playing some mandolin. None of these groups were doing what I really wanted to do. I wanted to play jazz on the mandolin, and take a fairly modern approach to it . . . and write my own tunes and have my own group. So I started booking one day a month at this place called the “Last Elm Cafe,” and just found anybody I could to play with me. It was basically for free and the idea was “Look, were just going to have fun and play for ourselves,” and not worry about the things we would have to consider if we were playing at a restaurant while people were eating dinner. It got a little out there. It was kind of experimental. The project today is the outcome of those early beginnings.

DM: From those early beginnings, did you see yourself as a full-time musician?

JM: Well, I really hoped I could be a musician. Definitely. To devote my life to it . . . that’s the way I’ve always felt. It was just at that time in the early 90’s when fans were starting to bring tape recorders and DAT machines and set up their own mics and tape shows. It was just at that time that the Internet was really getting going, and people were really starting to communicate about what bands they liked and trading tapes. Those two things helped us enormously. During the first real national tour that we did, out in Madison, Wisconsin in fact, it floored me. I just thought, “nobody’s gonna come to this . . . we only play around Vermont.” But we got to Chicago, and several hundred people came to hear us and it was just amazing. People were saying “oh yeah, we got tapes . . . we’ve been waiting for you guys to come out for a long time,” and I was just amazed. So that’s really one of the big things that has helped us get out there.

DM: I think that tape trading and the Internet have definitely helped the scene that is evolving around the music. Another facet is the festival circuit. What do you think is the effect of festivals like this one (Grassroots Music Festival)?

JM: I think it’s great. I think we’re kind of coming full circle back to people enjoying pretty creative music. There are similarities between all of these bands that are playing here, but there’s also a lot of differences.

DM: Yeah, I guess if you break it down, the only real similarity is that they all improvise. It’s not like there is a typical jazz band here or a typical bluegrass band.

JM: Yeah, back in the ’80’s, when I was growing up, you had bluegrass festivals, and that was great. You had more rock-band stuff and folk festivals. But I find this to be very creative. People are really working to develop themselves. It’s very artistic. It’s great.

DM: I realize that the lineup for your band has changed a lot over the years. What is the current touring crew?

JM: Well, right now, the idea that I’m working with is: “I have two bass players who know all the material and two drummers who know all of the material. “ So I’m working with these four guys in different combinations because the group tours so much and all of these musicians I’m playing with are already established in the New York scene, or something; they have work in other places. So it’s been a lot to ask someone to just be on the road with JMP all the time, but its turned out to be a really healthy and creative process to have two cats in each department who know all of the material. Then, when you mix it up, it seems really fresh. Everybody is excited to hit the road, and nobody’s road-weary. It’s been a good process.

DM: So this situation has to make you the main composer then, I’m assuming.

JM: Yeah, I’ve always been the main writer. There are a number of tunes that we have all collaborated on. But in general, that was one of the big reasons that I wanted to have a group: I really enjoy writing music. I’m devoted to two different things: composing and improvising. I do the composing at home, and the improvising on the stage. The hope is that, at home, I carefully create some sort of framework or notion. The guys learn the general framework, and then we go out and interpret and do our improvising. There’s that combination of the two elements.

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