A Fine Line Between Composition and Chaos: Jamie Masefield
Now, more than a decade since Jamie Masefield first put together monthly shows at the Last Elma Cafs the Jazz Mandolin Project, the Project continues to evolve. Today, JMP includes the double punch of trumpet and keyboards played by Michael "Mad Dog" Mavridoglou" Mad Dog, drums and Peruvian percussion by Mark Guiliana and upright bass by Scott Richie. The Project still flexes its contemporary jazz craftiness but in recent years has developed plenty of danceability for standing folks. Now, Jazz Mandolin Project will soon make another 180 degree turn.
Before JMP's Urbana, IL. gig, Jamie and I spoke in the ever-chilly basement of Canopy Club about his journey from tenor banjo and traditional New Orleans jazz to national tours on mandolin, while eschewing bluegrass and working with chaos.
Benji: How has the new line-up impacted on the shows and your music?
Jamie: Well, Mad Dog has been a steady element for going on two years now. The drummer, Mark Guiliana, one of the things we feature Mark on, which none of the other drummers do, is he plays this thing called the cajon. It's a wooden box basically. Futureman plays one too. They're from Peru. He comes out front and we do a duo that is flamenco-orientated song that we play. People can check out the Cajon, which is a very different instrument. We don't see it much in the states. On one of the sides, there's a sound hole. He sits on the box to play it. The front board actually has a little gap from where it's nailed to the wood. So, when it's hit there's a clicking sound with the wood hitting the other wood. Mark has been studying with a guy who plays with Paco de Lucia. He tours Europe quite a bit and he's been hanging out with that guy, and showing him all the tricks. That's one thing on this tour is we feature Mark and the cajon.
B: What about the loss of Danton Boller and his laptop effects?
J: Danton never used that much laptop. But he's a master with pedals. Scott [Richie] has been getting better and better at pedals and adding more stuff in that department. We're back into the zone with the bass player pushing the buttons."
B: I saw you played some Spinal Tap a little while ago.
J: We played our first New Year's gig this year in Burlington, and we played "Stonehenge." We learned it, Mad Dog sang it, and Fishman did the backup vocals. All of that was hilarious.
B: You’ve spoke before about the importance of composing material and laying a song out, but it’s also good to see a band enjoying the performance aspect. How do you balance the two?
J: Like you've already mentioned, I am very interested in composition. I think of it as something that mainly happens at home. So, the hope is that we can build structures that will be strong and lasting that we can improvise within. The composition, for me, is something that takes place mostly at home, with a piano. But, we try to leave open spaces for whatever is happening that night to explore and do what's in the moment. Right now, we're working on a tune that we just debuted last night, and we'll play again tonight. It's what I would call a roadmap song, which is a lot of sections. We're trying to get it all set in our heads. I sat at home for a while trying to create that structure, and now we're trying to get in our brains and do some improvising. We're giving birth to a new big tune right now, which is always interesting (laughs). Last night was definitely risky, but I feel like you_have_ to do that because you can keep rehearsing it, and rehearsing it, but eventually you have to throw it out for the first time, and that's always a scary thing. We did it last night, and it was fun.
B: How did it come out?
J: It had some tough moments. Some very tough moments (laughs). But, we learned a lot from it, and I think we'll play it stronger and stronger now. But, it did have some disastrous moments, but we pulled it together and laughed about it later.
B: Can you talk a bit about striking that balance? Do you recall a time when you started dealing with that struggle of playing a written composition live, with the chaos factor chance of things not going exactly as written?
J: There have been some songs that may have been too structured. Because they were so structured, they never found a strong place in the repertoire. They had to be put on the shelf. I've learned from that. I try to have as many open areas in tunes as seems balanced. The problem with the songs that get too written out is they get boring to play for the guys. I kinda like to play them because I wrote them, and so I enjoy hearing how the composition is sounding at different moments, you know? But, when you play as many gigs as we do, it just feels like they might be going through the motions. That's something to be very careful of onstage. If we think onstage that we're going through the motions, think how that's conveying to the crowd. So, often those tunes I've just put away for a rainy day. There's definitely a balance between too much structure and too much improvising. I think there's a problem with too much improvising too, so we're always trying to find that happy medium.
B: What was your earliest childhood memory of music?
J: My first memories are how I first got started, and those have to do with family parties and jam session at those parties. People my parents age played jazz. They played old jazz tunes with a piano and an upright bass, a saxophone, trumpet, tuba. That's what got me into music. I grew up in a musical family. One of those guys was playing a tenor banjo, and the tenor banjo is different than a five-string. It's not a bluegrass instrument. It's strum, and played in traditional New Orleans jazz. When I heard that, I wanted to do that too, so my parents got me a banjo for Christmas when I was eleven years old. I took lessons from that guy every Saturday from when I was eleven until I went to college. Those memories got me into music, and into jazz.
B: When you went to college how did you continue to pursue music?
J: "Well, I never took one music class when I was in college. My major was in geography and environmental studies. In high school, I wasn't very cool because I played the banjo and played traditional New Orleans jazz, and that's just not where it's at in high school. Oddly enough, the first week or two I got to the University of Vermont, I somehow miraculously met this whole community of older jazz musicians who played traditional New Orleans jazz, who desperately needed a banjo player. Suddenly I had all these gigs playing old jazz, and I was doing the classic thing. They had band uniforms with a red vest and a bowtie, and all that. I had lots of gigs doing that, but that was not a cool thing really. It was cool to me, but I'm an oddball. That's when I started picking up the mandolin more. The mandolin and banjo are tuned similarly. They're both part of the violin family and are tuned to fifths. So, everything I learned on the tenor banjo I could play on the mandolin as well. That's why my style of playing is a lot different than a lot of bluegrass-orientated players. I just don't have the bluegrass background. I have this background in traditional jazz. I picked up the mandolin to play some more contemporary types of music.
B: Did the mandolin let that happen more smoothly?
J: Yeah. I didn't enjoy jamming with friends in dorm rooms on the tenor banjo, because everyone always expects it to sound like five-string. They don't really know that traditional New Orleans thing, and I could never pull it off on a totally different instrument. And they were playing Grateful Dead tunes, and I could just do such a better job on the mandolin. It seemed to fit a lot better. So, while that was happening, I got more into modern jazz, and the modern jazz guitar players like Jim Hall and Scofield and Pat Metheny, Mike Stern. When I heard those guys, the light bulb really went off, and I wondered if I could do something similar on the mandolin. That's how the concept of JMP really got started.
B: What was the path that led you to the monthly gigs?
J: I was in a situation where I was playing five different bands. Two Dixieland bands and some swing bands, and half-bluegrassy bands, and none of it did what I really wanted to do which was to play a more modern type of jazz on the mandolin. So, I actually quit playing in a lot of those bands and just started practicing _a lo_t. Then, I moved forward to get the gig at the coffee house once a month, and try to find musicians who would play with me, and try to write tunes. All those preliminary steps to try to put something together.
B: Was it hard to convince other musicians that the coffee house gig could be a way for them to express themselves in ways they hadn’t before?
J: A little bit, yeah. That was maybe why playing at the coffee house worked, because it wasn't a straight up gig like at a restaurant, where you play quiet tunes, and you don't get too crazy or too loud, it's just background music. It was a much freer thing. I would tell people the gig is basically for free, we'll pass around a hat, but you play whatever you want. We're just gonna go for it. I hoped that kind of energy would reach out to the people listening, and it really did. The coffee house gigs started going really well. It was difficult in the beginning getting people to play.
B: One thing I’ve learned in my own music endeavors is after something experimental gets started and moving, it then has to be maintained, which is just as much work if not more than starting. What did you deal with after you got past the start?
J: First of all, I never considered myself to be quick learner in terms of music. Things have come slow, with lots of hard work, but one characteristic that I do have is persistence. That exact issue you bring up is something I jumped on. It was very important to me to have a regular gig, to make sure it happened every month and with some regularity. Using the same poster, and putting it in the same spot. Trying to write new tunes for every gig and rehearsing them. I was just very persistent in the regularity of everything. People knew over a period of time that this thing happened every month. The Elm Cafe would make their calendar, and JMP was always there on a Thursday night, without a doubt. For three years, we played there almost every Thursday. That was such an important mechanism for me starting this thing up, because it was at that time people were starting to tape shows with their own equipment, and they started trading shows. We started getting other opportunities at nearby colleges. So, the persistence was a very important element in getting things going.
B: When did you first start to tour with JMP?
J: It started in '93, but I don't think we really got on the road that much until '94, or '95.
B: What led to finally taking that step?
J: We played at colleges where students had gotten a tape, and said, Hey, come play at this coffee house, we can throw this much money at you.' Great. We'd get in a car and go for the weekend. But, eventually a kid from Madison, Wisconsin said he wanted us to play and that he'd book a tour from Vermont to Madison. At first, I just thought, right (laughs). But, we ended up booking from Vermont halfway, and he booked from that halfway point to Madison. That was a major revelation to me because I never expected anyone from Chicago to come see us. Why should they come see us? We had never played anywhere within four hundred miles of Chicago, but we went and people were there to see our gig. I just couldn’t believe it. It was because they had heard tapes. So, that was a light bulb going off saying, You really could tour nationally.’ It’s not going to be any great rock star event, but that’s what I desperately wanted to do. I desperately wanted to get in the car and go play at these places, and play original music every single night. To be able to do that was fantastic.
B: Can you think of any significant, lucid moments from that time?
J: It was that gig in Chicago at a place called Schuba's. Somehow the talent buyer signed us up, and paid us well. At that time it seemed like incredible money. She was later concerned, like, What was I thinking?' We were thinking the same thing that it was going to be a disaster. I mean no one knew who we were! But, miraculously, we sold a bunch of tickets and people were there. That was a very fine moment for me to realize that people all over the country had heard us to a small extent. We could go play different parts of the country and start to peck away at getting some national recognition.
B: What was happening musically at that time?
J: One process that I went through was that I wanted to sit down. I wanted to play sitting down and I wanted the audience to sit down, because I didn't feel that…well, for one I could play better sitting down and two, I really fought the idea of trying to be a dance band. I thought it was something we'd never be able to do well, because it's a group led by a mandolin, and we were only a trio. I held back a lot from the standing up. When they are standing up, I feel more of a need to try and play danceable music. It'd be a drag to stand up and watch a band for hours and hours. But, I eventually moved through that. It's still not the first part of my mission to be a dance band. We do play stuff that's danceable, but that's not the most important thing in my mind. There's other bands that will always be able to do that a lot better. But what I always wanted was to have a group that was unique. If I ever had and still have a goal it's to try and do something unique and different, and play music one couldn't find elsewhere.
B: It’s funny you mention that because the last time I saw JMP, about a year ago, I couldn’t sit down. I remember hearing a lot of different things than I had heard years before.
J: The addition of Mad Dog really helped that. I had been looking for a fourth member for a long time, but I was looking for something very specific I wanted someone who could play keyboards, and some other instrument. Particularly, I was hoping for a wind instrument because I thought we needed more long tones. Really, mandolin, upright bass and drums are all percussion instruments. It all comes from hitting something. So, when I saw Mad Dog playing in Ray's Music Exchange I just thought that's the guy, or at least someone like him. We played a number of festivals together, and I would ask him to sit in. Having that fourth member finally come in, and getting two sounds out of one guy helped to make the band sound so much bigger. I feel like we put on such a better show now than we did as a trio.
B: When you made the first recording, what were some ideas you worked with?
J: That album captures my ability as a songwriter at that time, and we could leave it at that. Most of those songs were written before I started studying with a composition teacher in Vermont named Ernie Stiles. He really started changing my viewpoint. Basically, the way I would write tunes before I worked with Ernie, was I would sit down with the mandolin and find happy accidents or happy coincidences. You pick around and say, Oh, that's a really cool lick.' Then you've got these three chords that you think sound really pretty too, and you think, Well I can just play this cool lick, and then those chords twice, and then the cool lick again. And here's another handful of chords that sound pretty too.' You kind of glue all these things together that don't really have the much connection to each other. It's funny because some of my best tunes were written that way. I can't say that it's a bad way to go.
B: Maybe a good way to start.
J: Yeah, it is a good way to start. Then, Ernie showed me a more tutored way of composing, really composing music. What I just described I really don't consider composing. It's just gluing things together. It's like playing with Lego blocks. You just stick one piece on another. That's a picture of an earlier point of view, and as we go through the albums things develop a little more composition-wise.
B: What did Ernie make you focus on?
J: First of all, he told me if I wanted to work with him I would have to learn to play the piano, and I couldn't do that at all. The only reason for that is for composition purposes, not for performing. I have learned how to play piano, but I wouldn't perform it, because it's more about theory, and spelling out chords, and playing two lines at once. One of the things he impressed upon me was elongating themes. My themes were small, little five note clusters that were played over and over. He would move me in a direction of saying, Instead of using those five notes to fill out the phrase, why don't you use different notes, and have it be more harmonically rich.' Then, he said to take that phrase, and instead of just moving to the next thing, make an extension of it that is the equal length of that phrase. So everything kind of gets elongated and also more intricate from using different notes. For instance, a rock guitar player plays a song that might be based on a riff, based on the pentatonic scale, you know? So, a cat would just play that scale and play that scale, and Ernie pulled me away from that. He said, Come on, that's just five notes there. Add some color. Take it on an adventure.' That was a key thing that he brought.
B: How was what you took from Ernie applied in Tour de Flux? Was there more input from the other members?
J: Not in the composing. That takes place at home when those guys are out playing other gigs, doing other projects. I'm pecking away trying to create a framework. But, when I take to them at a rehearsal or during a sound check, there's lots of input. Lots of really important input, where we'll realize something is too dense or needs to be doubled up, or maybe so and so should solo over this for a little while. A lot of changes take place when the band is together."
B: With Mad Dog joining, what are some things you’ve noticed that have changed?
J: For one, I don't have to take all the solos, which is a wonderful thing. There's so much more variety now. Also, there were a lot of parts in songs that desperately needed reinforcement. Some lines on I would play on the mandolin just did not sound full enough. To have him double those lines with me has just made a world of difference. We would be in a big jam where we're just rocking away, and there's a little phrase that's very important to the tune that I try to play, but now matter no matter how hard I would play it, it never had the impact that was needed. So, to double up with Mad Dog, or to harmonize with him, it's just made the group much better harmonically, melodically, solo-wise. It's been a great change.
B: Since Jungle Tango, what have been some new things you’ve worked out?
J: Wow…there have been a lot of tunes that have come up since Jungle Tango. They're all over the board. I couldn't say that I'm on a specific path, with an interest in a specific thing since then. There's one new tune that I use a different tuning from the standard mandolin tuning, where the bottom G string…I'm dropping the G down a half step to an F sharp, which if you rake across the all those strings you get an open D chord. So, I have a new tune called Cicada Seventeen,' which uses a different tuning. That's been a real challenge for me because when you're playing along that whole string has totally different values now. So, you can't just play a riff over the four strings the way you used to in the other tuning. When you change your tuning, you can't just solo over something. You have to really work at it to figure out what the hell you're going to play. That's been a new zone for me.
B: You’ve had a chance to sit in with a few folks, so what have been some favorite moments?
J: Last year, some highlights were sitting with Bela and the Flecktones. That was really marvelous. Those guys made me feel so comfortable onstage. It was the first time I had played onstage with them, and I was worried about getting nervous, but it also had to do with how they played so quietly onstage that it was very calm. It was just a wonderful experience. Also, we opened up for Ratdog for a bunch of shows, and I sat in with Bob Weir. Played some famous Grateful Dead tunes. That was a real thrill to be up there with Bob playing Friend of the Devil,' and stuff like that. It was wonderful.
B: Anyone you haven’t played with yet that you’d like to?
B: Gotta be a long list.
J: Exactly! I'd love to play with lots of people. Sometimes I think the sitting in thing gets over-magnified in our scene. People walk away excited about who sat in with who, and I guess that's a fun, special sight to watch, but really I think most guys in bands agree that the best music happens with the group of guys who know each other, know how they play. Know how to work together as a group. I don't mean to suggest that the sit-ins aren't good. I think they're great and are valuable moments in a player's career, but I think the best musical moments are with the cats you play with a lot.
B: What are some hopes for the future?
J: Well, I have this new CD coming out on April 19th, called The Deep Forbidden Lake. It’s something that’s very different from all the other albums I’ve ever done. It’s with Gil Goldstein on piano and accordion, and Greg Cohen on upright bass. There’s no drums, and these are two cats who have never played in JMP. Gil has sat in with JMP and is on Jungle Tango, but this is twelve cover tunes. Twelve songs that are favorites of mine that go across the board. Some are jazz tunes, some are folk tunes, some are rock tunes, all different kinds of things. It's a very quiet, melodic album, which is what I wanted…what I felt a real need to do. There's not a lot of jams. There's no beats or grooves, since there are no drums. I'm really excited about that.
B: I remember hearing after Jungle Tango that you felt a need to break away from what’s been built up from the beginning of JMP to that point.
J: That's true. I felt particularly that with the jungle grooves. It seemed we said enough in that vein, at least in terms of putting out albums. I just wanted to move away from that. Deep Forbidden Lake is a direct result of that. It couldn't be going in the opposite direction anymore than it has. I don't know what people will think but it's what I wanted to do.
B: Relative to the span of your career with the kind of hovering debate on whether Internet technology has helped or hurt music, what are some thoughts you’ve had on the impact of taping shows?
J: Well, I've always felt it's helped us tremendously. It's one of the characteristics of this whole scene we're all a part of, which is totally different from many scenes that have come before us. We could talk forever about the pros and cons of taping music, and I don't know if you want to go into all of that, but in general it's just been a very important element for us.
B: I can see how it can bring music to an area without you actually going there, and that’s one thing. But to get the other side, what would you say is a con?
J: I think there have been times when tapers have felt that taping…I'm choosing my words very carefully right now…that taping is a right rather than a privilege. Those are unfortunate moments when those issues come up. People have been confused, annoyed and downright pissed of at us for not allowing soundboard tapes. That's one time when it's a little bit of a drag. And of course the other thing is this whole issue of why buy a CD from the guys when you already have bootlegs that you think are better anyway? So, if people's interest in the actual albums decline, then we all have to ask why do we bother spending thousands and thousands of dollars making a studio album? There's a balance there too. If you have any business sense at all, it's not okay to just break even on an album. What business person spends twenty thousand dollars on something, and feels okay making twenty thousand back? Nobody does except for a musician (laughs). Most of us are happy if we can break even but most business people wouldn't even touch it with a ten foot pole. That's an issue that comes up.
B: It is a shame that people get all hot about soundboard recordings. The purpose of the board is so things can be mixed.
J: Exactly! What's going through the soundboard is not designed to be an album. It's designed to reinforce the sound the band is making. So, there's all kinds of imbalances in what's coming out of the mixing board. People seem to think that's a superior source. I think putting some good microphones and getting the sound of the crowd in there, that’s the magic of taping a show.