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Published: 2002/01/22
by John Sadowski

Tour de Continuum: The Ever-Evolving Jazz Mandolin Project

Sometime in 1993 a twenty-something banjo and mandolin player named Jamie Masefield walked into the Last Elm Cafa small not-for-profit coffee shop in Burlington, Vermont and struck himself a deal: the opportunity one night a month to play in any style or manner he chose simply for his own, if not everybody else’s enjoyment. Jamie had a new idea about where he wanted to go with the mandolin as an instrument and the Last Elm Cafas the perfect setting in which to develop this idea. It was a rather simple, yet intricately complex idea: to explore jazz through the voice of the mandolin. Yet with that simply complex idea a Jazz Mandolin Project was born, and in the years since his days at the Last Elm, Jamie Masefield has transformed his idea into an ever-evolving musical machine, fluidly exploring the somewhere-space between jazz, rock, fusion, and traditional American folk music.

“I started on the tenor banjo playing really early styles of jazz, traditional New Orleans jazz,” states Masefield. “The first things that I was playing were old Louis Armstrong tunes and that really separates me from most mandolin players who really start off with bluegrass. So I started out with the fundamentals of jazz with these early songs.”

It was from these jazz roots that Jamie grew and his approach was ripe for development. He recruited two friends, Stacey Starkweather on bass and Gabe Jerrett on drums and began to delve deeper into the world of jazz, recording their first CD The Jazz Mandolin Project in 1996.

“My understanding of jazz has developed a lot since the beginning of JMP. The first record is really highlighted with songs like “The Country Open” which are really in my mind, not that jazzy,” he explains. “And I’ve had a chance to play this stuff more. I play different chords now than what I did then. I comp other musicians differently when they’re playing. I play different rhythmically. I guess I’ve been developing a little more complex harmonic stuff than what I had been doing in the earlier years.”

In early 1998 Masefield realized that the Project couldn’t be limited to one, two, three, or even four rotating players as his idea continued to pick through the layers of musical onion that is jazz, so he recruited some new people aboard and launched the noted Tour de Flux with Chris Dahlgren on upright bass and Jon Fishman on drums. Over the course of the nationwide tour that followed, the band collected a serious chunk of raw JMP live pieces and released Tour de Flux that year.

And it didn’t stop there. Over the course of the next few years the Jazz Mandolin Project incorporated the skills of such players as Greg Gonzalez, Ari Hoenig, Danton Boller and Scott Neumann.

“It has never been my plan to rotate people,” Masefield says, “but really in the jazz community it’s a fairly standard thing where you might have two different drummers who play with you because everybody’s playing with different people and keeping things fresh. You look at the past in jazz and different sidemen work with all kinds of other players and they have their own projects as well that they’re working on, and it keeps things really creative.”

And in Masefield’s opinion, that is the most important aspect of the Project. The music must constantly evolve.

“You know Ari will play a song so much different than Jon would, and Greg Gonzalez would play it differently from the two of them and its really nice. And I don’t see things changing with these guys. They all know the material and like mixing it all up with each other. It’s kind of like a family and it keeps things really fresh for all of us and we look forward to having the opportunity to play with each other.”

Lately the band has taken a new approach to the music, evolving ever further into the spectrum of jazz as modern music. It was with the group’s last recording Xenoblast Masefield says, that the Project really began to evolve in a different way. Traditional jazz began to morph into music with more modern-day influences.

“The song Xenoblast’ was a cracking open of a shell of a new zone that we’ve been developing. It’s basically a song that emulates the drum and bass type vibe but with our own twist on it. And at that point we were just learning what we could do,” Masefield continued. “Its been a real challenge to figure out how a mandolin, upright bass, and drums could make something happen in that genre that we find exciting and fresh, and isn’t just some repetitive thing that goes on forever.”

In turn the performances themselves have changed.

“I think things have really changed from almost a sit down show to more of a danceable experience,” says Masefield. “Not because we’ve been trying to cater to that situation, but because we’ve gotten really interested in certain beats, a lot of drum and bass jungle stuff, certain techno stuff. It has to do with working in spaces in a different way than here are the chord progressions and someone takes a solo over the progressions’. Its kind of an abstract painting compared to a landscape painting; a different way of working with space.”

These days the members are excited to explore that new avenue on the road.

“Harmonically the drum and bass thing is really different cause we’re not working through that many chord progressions. It’s not like you’re soloing over chord changes in the drum and bass stuff that we’re trying to do but you are trying to hook together fairly dissonant chords and make sure they still have kind of interesting relationship to each other. Not just some haphazard this chord that chord, but chords that are really stretching it harmonically yet are still connected to each other.”

Early last year the band also took their efforts to the studio, putting together an album to be released in sometime this year. But these recording sessions didn’t simply span a new albums worth of material for JMP, they also offered a rare glimpse into the truly improvisational roots of the Jazz Mandolin Project. Each night after the “official” recordings had been worked on the group would assemble for what became known as the After Dinner Jams, a CD’s worth of material spontaneously created and recorded in the bands downtime.

“After we’d record all day long we’d have these after dinner jams,” Masefield explains. “We weren’t considering this stuff for a CD as we were playing it; we were just playing for fun. And the more we got talking the more we really wanted to go back and check out these after dinner jams and it turns out there was just some really neat stuff on there. Some really special moments that we thought we would really like to put on a CD.”

And so they did, releasing After Dinner Jams on their own and making it available only at the Project’s shows or via their web site, a special treat just for the fans.

“We just decided to get this stuff together and have it as a new thing for fans to check out right there at the gigs,” he says. “These after dinner jams were just too good that we didn’t want them to go unheard.”

With its ever-morphing sound and essence, the Jazz Mandolin Project has continued to expand on the simply complex idea Masefield came up with back at the Last Elm CafAnd as is true with any of the Project’s live shows, anything is truly possible.

“I’ve been studying Mexican Mariachi music recently and I’m putting together a Mariachi tune. We’ve been listening to what they’re doing rhythmically and we thought that it could be a fun thing for us to try to develop.”

Since the beginning his goal has simply been to create good music, regardless of the source. “In essence,” he explains, “things are always gathered all over the place.”

With that theory in mind the Jazz Mandolin Project continues to create and explore new musical avenues day after day, night after night: a Tour de Continuum.

For updated Jazz Mandolin Project tour information, and to purchase the newly-released After Dinner Jams, please visit the band’s web site at: www.jazzmandolinproject.com.

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