Jazz Mandolin Project, Higher Ground, South Burlington, VT- 12/31
True to his Vermont heritage, visionary mandolinist Jamie Masefield displays as much independence as he does integrity. As he fronts his Jazz Mandolin project, it's an open-ended exploration of various musical approaches, such as a recent tribute to Django Reinhardt, and a rotating lineup of musicians (on this night tapping Jon Fishman for drum detail), at the inaugural New Year's Eve gig at Higher Ground in South Burlington Vermont.
Perhaps because of his roots in the Green Mountains, Masefield has always given stellar performances in this venue. Yet this special holiday show was one of moments, rather than the tight, progressively adventurous two-set performance in the old HG Winooski location this past February. Many JMP sets begin inauspiciously, as if Masefield wants to test the atmosphere before proceeding in a given direction and this show fit that bill. The quartet sounded tentative, perhaps because of Fishman's presence as drummer for this single show after time away from the group (even though he definitely gave a more pronounced rhythmic thrust to the band) and Jamie's duet with Mark Giuliana on Cajon for "Lojo Lima" was almost drowned out by the expectant buzz coming from the party-minded audience.
But the first set coalesced, not surprisingly, when Masefield and Fishman began trading licks about forty-five minutes in: it was here the textures added by Mike "Mad Dog" Mavridoglu on trumpet and keyboards found their level, even though Scott Ritchie's bass didn't sound right till near the very end of the evening. Playing "Milestones' actually got the band in gear just prior to the flinty mandolin/drum exchange and gave some premonition of the approach Jamie and Co. would take during the second set.
Which began just before midnight, as champagne was distributed around the ballroom, and the band rendered a short, bittersweet "Auld Lang Syne." Masefield has brought a discernible recognition of the eclectics known as world music to the jamband scene, but he also aspires to the genuine spontaneity of improvisation, a perspective he explored extensively during this lengthy second set. Even though signature tunes such as "Xenoblast" and "Spiders" provided benchmarks, and Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" wass an impressive exercise in collective technique, there were also extended interludes where the musicians patiently searched for common threads from which to bond.
So more than a few patrons investigated the Higher Ground lounge during these intervals (another bill of bands was performing there for the New Year's festivities). What they missed in doing so were those near-transcendent moments when the quintet's playing crystallized after, in particular, a segment overflowing with ambient sounds of melody and percussion (Giuliana had joined he group onstage, much of the time to play trombone). Perhaps Jazz Mandolin wasn't exactly playing to the jubilant crowd that might've preferred something more accessible, but it's Jamie's nature to do what he wants rather than what might be expected of him.
Given that fact, it was no small pleasure to have him return for the first encore and begin playing Neil Young's' "Powderfinger" all by himself. Fingering his mandolin delicately as the melody unfurled, while behind him were projected filmed images of its author (the likes of which had been presented throughout the night, interspersed with animation and pure effects). The rest of he band joined the leader on stage one by one, to climax the song with the flourish it deserved, only to have that poignant moment give way to a truly in-your-face rendition of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs!?. Sung with braggadocio by Fishman, it brought some a somewhat harsh relevance to the celebratory mindset of the occasion, yet never truly undermined that positive atmosphere.
Yet the beauty of music well played is such that it works on so many levels, a description that might well apply perfectly accurately to the workings of The Jazz Mandolin Project. Jamie Masefield was effusive in his praise of the Higher Ground venue, its history, its owners and its patrons and you had to hope as the lights came up well past two in the morning that he becomes as much of a staple at the club's new location as he is of the Vermont music scene in general.