Jamie Masefield: ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’
On the surface, thirteen years doesn’t seem like such a long time, but, in band years, thirteen years most certainly feels like a lifetime. Yet, while countless groups have come in gone in that span, Jazz Mandolin Project remains an active touring entity, as always, led by Vermont mandolinst Jamie Masefield. After shuffling its lineup with relative regularity for a number of years, the group has settled on a seemingly permanent configuration consisting of Masefield, drummer Sean Dixon and upright bassist Michael O’Brien. The group’s latest addition is also a seasoned scene veteran, one of the few musicians to both open for the Grateful Dead and perform with Phish, String Cheese Incident and Steve Kimock: New York-based woodwinds player Peter Apfelbaum.
Always eager to tweak his sound, Masefield’s latest project takes the Jazz Mandolin Project out of the traditional concert setting altogether and finds the quartet exploring a multi-media song-cycle based around the classic Tolstoy story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” (your next chance to see this performance is on Wednesday May 30 at New York City’s Highline Ballroom).Below, Masefield discusses the project’s evolution, Jazz Mandolin Project’s future and how Mike Gordon brought a Russian immigrant into his evolving project.
MG- For readers who haven’t seen your current project, can you briefly describe how this show is different from a normal JMP concert?
JM- It’s a multi-media performance which is the telling of the Tolstoy story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?.” It’s the band set up in front of a movie screen which displays all these visuals that I’ve collected on the road since 2005. So, this is essentially a modern interpretation of an old Russian story using video, music and narration. I had no experience, or interest, in filmmaking. But, I am interested in drumming up something that would take the music out of the spotlight and support something else—-something that had a message onto itself, where we can glue the music to a greater idea.
After thinking about this for several years, I came across this wonderful short story which I think has a lot of meaning right now, particularly with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and all of the talk about global warming. It has a message—-a moral story—which is very obvious, but it doesn’t have anything specifically to do with America or our current political situation.
MG- You actually have a background in environmental studies, correct?
JM- I went to the University of Vermont and majored in Environmental studies and geography, so all through college I was really involved in Earth Day. Then I became a musician, but I never really thought I put those thoughts aside. Traveling around the country has always been my way of addressing geography. Being on the road, I’m always observing and analyzing things, whether it’s the Amish plowing their sounds or the fact that it’s spring and we still have snow banks in Vermont.
MG- Earlier, you mentioned that you were looking to “take the music out of the spotlight.” What spurred on this idea?
JM- I think that it’s a real challenge to put on a real show which is all instrumental music—-without lyrics. And, everyone from Pat Metheny to Bela to John Scofield, kind of does their best at this challenge by doing something quite abstract, but keeping their audience glued to them at all time. We’ve been doing this for 13 years and I thought, “time is going by and there are so many things I want to do, I’m just going to try to bundle these things up into one new thing.”
MG- What was the process like of collecting and editing all these visuals?
JM- I applied for, and received, a grant from the Vermont Council of the Arts to start this project. It wasn’t a lot of money and at first I thought I’d have to find someone to do all the videos. But, then, it dawned on me, “What If I did all the visuals myself while I was on the road?” It became so much more interesting to meI could capture all those images and places I got a kick out of on the road. Leaning how to edit it has been a very difficult challenge and a bit draining at times, but, overall, I love the challenge!
MG- A few years ago, I saw Bill Frisell deliver a live silent film score at New York’s World Financial Center. It was fascinating to watch him interact with the film, musically. How did you approach the creation of these songs in relation to your visuals?
JM- It’s funny you mention that because Bill Frisell doing the soundtrack for Buster Keaton’s silent movies really inspired me to do this project. I found it really enjoyable to have such a specific task to create music for a scene. All the narrations in the film are done by an older Russian woman who teaches literature at MIT. So, her voice is going along with the images and we create the music around her narrations. So, to me, having that responsibility was a challenge I really enjoyed. With a JMP concert, with our repertoire, there is so much freedom to write any tune that I wanted that sometimes that in itself was a stumbling block for me. Here it is like, “Ok, it’s raining now, I have to write rainy music for one-and-a-half minutes.”
MG- Would you ever consider adding more traditional lyrics to Jazz Mandolin Project’s catalogue?
JM- I’m really not interested in lyrics. I have a hard time following lyricsit is my own problem. Writing and singing lyrics is never something I have been particularly interested inwhat I am interested in storytelling, which is kind of how this project developed.
MG- You mentioned before that the film is narrated by an elder MIT professor. How did you find this woman?
JM- That was actually with the help of Mike Gordon, who has been a big help and advisor in the video department. I asked him a lot of questions and spent a lot of hours working with him. Originally, I had in mind that people would read subtitles because this story is only about 15 pages long. So, I made a little five minute version of the film and everyone hated reading subtitles [laughs]. It was unanimous and Mike didn’t read one word [laughs].
So, he came up with the idea of having a narrator and he thought of this woman Elena Pankratov. In the early 1970s, Mike’s parents were instrumental in getting a lot of Russian Jews out of Russia. Elena and her husband are some of those people. So, they got her over here and she eventually ended up teaching Russian literature at Harvard and MIT. She read it and, at the end of these shows, she is often the MVP. She is on the DVD, she doesn’t come to the shows, but everyone wants to know about her. Mike and I went down to Boston with his recording gear, sat in her living room and she read the whole thing out load to us. Then we went back to Mike’s and he edited it, taking out all the stutters and pauses.
MG- You recently replaced longtime Jazz Mandolin Project trumpeter Mad Dog Mavridoglou with Peter Apfelbaum. What precipitated this change?
JM- Mad Dog lives out in Cincinnati, recently got married, had a kid and needed to get off the road.
MG- So he is on family tour, huh?
Yeah, he is on family duty and just staying at home [laughs]. I actually knew Peter and his music before he started playing with Trey. He played at the Burlington Jazz Fest in ’92 and had a very famous trumpeter with him named Don Cherry, who played with Ornette Coleman for most of his career. They did a workshop/lecture just the two of them before the show and I learned about Peter that way.
Then we did these EO shows last fall on Everyone Orchestra’s first tour, so that was one of the way’s we spent more time together. The idea of someone conducting a band is a really cool concept. It was really enjoyable to play with all these guys we see at festivals, like Jeff Coffin and Steve Kimock. Just to hang out and talk about music with them was amazing. Peter just finished this album so we’d pop that on and we’d talk about it or Steve Kimock would teach me how to play Indian raga music [laughs]. That’s what I loved the most, to be able to really dig in and talk.
MG- Have you found it difficult to create music which complements the film without overshadowing it?
JM- I think some of the music leans in the classical department, but some of it is also jazzy stuff which we make up in the moment. It depends what is happening in the story, but it is a mixed bag. I am actually making my ukulele debut. I was trying to get the vibe of “raindrops” and wrote this silly tune. Peter also plays the melodica and I feel like they are a perfect combo somebody has to call us to do a commercial [laughs].
MG- After your upcoming New York performance, do you plan to take this project on the road?
JM- That’s what I want to do. The challenge is that we really need theater like settings. I kind of don’t think it works in an outdoor/festival setting. It is a quiet show, not a rock-it-out kind of show. So, the New York show is what we working on now. We are trying to get this into college theaters and performance spaces. But it is challenge to find the right setting and it’s a hard thing to explain, which I get. There is just so much competition with festivals and family BBQs to do this show in the summer. I don’t see Jazz Mandolin Project going on a club tour anytime soon. We are just trying to change gears for a while and focus on this show.
MG- For many years Jon Fishman toured with Jazz Mandolin Project on occasion. Have you talked about collaborating anytime in the near future?
JM- We haven’t actually. He’s been living in Maine with his family and he and his wife are expecting another child, so he is also on the family duty [laughs] and enjoying it quite a lot really.
MG- One group you have played on with increased regularity is MaMaVig. How did this project develop?
JM- It’s actually a funny story. Well, Frank Vignola’s manager called me and, while we were talking, I suggested Frank and I meet up to play together. I was in the car going to my parent’s house in upstate New York to celebrate their wedding anniversary and he was like, “that might be hard, Frank lives in this small town inupstate New York.” As it turns out, he lived in the same town, Warwick, NY, as my parents [laughs].
So, we met up that weekend and laughed about it for a while. We are doing some Discover Jazz dates with JFJO, but don’t have too many dates scheduled over the next few months. Frank is going to be playing with David Grisman, which is great for him, but not great for MaMaVig [laughs]. So, right now, I am really going to focus on “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” for the time being.