The mandolin has seen plenty of action in folk and in bluegrass, but when it comes to jazz, the instrument practically doesn't exist. Compared to Cecil Taylor's piano or John Coltrane's saxophone, the mandolin's place in the music is wide open. For Jamie Masefield, mandolin player and ringleader of the constantly morphing trio Jazz Mandolin Project, taking a new instrument to jazz brings an exhilarating freedom.
"If you're a saxophone player, you have this huge mountain to climb . . . all these players to listen to and take from," Masefield says. "But that's also kind of a difficult thing. You have a pretty intimidating list of cats to absorb. In some ways, doing this with the mandolin is easier, because it's like a huge open field that hasn't been explored that much. There are limitations, but at the same time, I feel as though it's nice to have so much open space to explore."
In Masefield's case, with great freedom comes great anxiety. Sure, with a new instrument and no tradition, you can do whatever you want. But no rules can be every bit as paralyzing as it is liberating. A high-wire artist who's traded his security net for elbowroom, Masefield has had to start from scratch with his instrument. He had to create a language for the mandolin that made sense to him and to jazz. With little or no help from prodigious predecessors, he had to decide on his own what sound goes and what sound stays.
"Working on the sound and the place of the mandolin, that will be an ongoing process throughout my whole career," he says. "That's something that every musician is always pecking away at. But perhaps that's something I need to do more so, since there's not much of a framework." Masefield hesitates for a moment before turning rhetorical: "How do you play jazz on the mandolin?"
And if this weren't tricky enough, Masefield has opted to cast his mandolin experiments in the context of the trio. Performing with only bass and drums, Masefield denies himself the piano stand-in, a harmonic cushion to help guide his playing and fill out the sound. Not only that, but the JMP lineup is constantly changing. In just the few years that JMP's been a reality, Masefield has gone through several bassists and drummers. It's a calculated move that keeps new voices and influences flowing into a trio, where the only constants are Masefield and his ax. New personnel equals new ideas, and, for a guy who's doing as much trial and error as Masefield is, the changing influences inspire him to new sounds as well. It's a gutsy move, opting to inhabit this crucible space, but it results in gutsy music.
Consider the trio's most recent recording, the aptly titled Tour de Flux. Immediately apparent is that Masefield has taken no cues from other mandolin players. No Peter Buck strum-chord action to be found. Masefield's linear, boppy/post-boppy lines--at times bouncy, at others expansive--his amped sound, and his clipped comping find inspiration in the guitars of John Scofield, Bill Frisell, and Jim Hall.
"When I was in college, that's when I really started getting turned on to all of those guys, and that's when I got a bug to do this full time," Masefield says. "I had been loving playing music ever since I was eleven and pecking away at it very determinedly, but when I got to college, suddenly it hit me that this was what I had to do. And it was these jazz guitarists that really sent me in a direction."
Moving away from the fusion bent of the previous album, Tour de Flux pairs Masefield with current bassist Chris Dahlgren and recently departed drummer and full-time Phish-man Jon Fishman. With Fishman's delicate, active drumming and Dahlgren's searching, always-engrossing bass, the music remains adventurous and complex, but surprisingly accessible throughout.
The album opens with the instantly appealing, relatively straightforward "Flux" and thereafter delves into both the heady and the playful. "Clip" finds Dahlgren center stage, pounding out brooding lines with paper clips (hence the name) lodged in his strings. His playing is imminently danceable, with a heavy rattle that fits right in with Fishman's drum-and-cymbal snap. Between Dahlgren's catchy groove and Fishman's clunk, it sounds as though they might be dipping from the same neo-Latin dance well as Medeski, Martin & Wood. On "Chapeau," Masefield and Dahlgren dig through a steady-pulsed atonal theme and then switch gears completely on the later ballad "Boodha." The plaintive lyricism and wide-open space of that tumbleweed jazz piece reflects what guitarist/genre-bender Frisell's been up to of late on albums like Nashville and Gone, Just Like a Train. Like Frisell, Masefield commits himself to the shape of a melodic line rather than just reeling off notes.
It's a wide-ranging album, much in keeping with Masefield's exploratory mindset. From the material on Tour de Flux, the trio could easily head off in any number of directions. But not every song is a total success. The occasional dead spot or hesitant moment lurks between bright spaces. Nevertheless, even when the album isn't quite working, the JMP always plays with solid empathy and quick rapport--reason enough to listen in. The three often improvise around a simple theme, but quickly collapse any clear-cut separation between solo and support. With the bass, drums, and mandolin on equal footing, it never sounds like Masefield's vanity project. On the album and in concert, the JMP keeps it organic.
"It's a situation where there's room for everyone to shine, to do their own thing, say their piece and interject," he says. "That's a necessity for this thing to get off the ground at each show--for everyone to show their personalities. That's something that I'm a strong proponent of. In the van we talk about how we're calling it the contrapuntal triad--a triangular conversation between each point in the trio. Each person is helping to fill in the various holes in the fabric. It's not at all a rhythm section backing up a mandolin; it's three voices conversing."
While most discussions of the liberated rhythm section inevitably migrate over to Bill Evens and his classic trio, Masefield has another model in mind. "In Dixieland, the front line, the trumpet, clarinet, and the trombone, they all weave together, they all have a role in playing a sound that's like a bunch of grapevines up a pole, all interweaving. I feel like we do a bit of that when we're improvising together."
The comments make sense in the context of Masefield's unique musical childhood. Masefield grew up in a Dixieland family, where jam sessions were as common as potato salad. At age eleven, Masefield latched onto the tenor banjo. He took lessons for years and jumped into the family jams whenever he could. Though he later switched to the similarly tuned mandolin, he continued to play in Dixieland groups throughout college.
"When I got to college, within the first couple months of being there, I got swooped up by a whole lot of Dixieland players in the Vermont area," says Masefield. "They were desperate for a tenor banjo player who could play all these tunes. I just felt great. I was playing these gigs and making fifty and seventy-five dollars, and that seemed like an awful lot of money at the time. Playing those Dixieland gigs all through college gave me my spending money. I've logged a lot of time strumming the banjo, playing these old tunes."
Masefield never really submerged himself in any of the typical mandolin musical settings. No bluegrass, no country. He was a jazzer since childhood, and that's probably why his mandolin doesn't sound like any other. "I was interested in jazz from the very beginning of my musical endeavors, and that's what makes me kind of odd as a mandolin player," he says. "Most mandolin players, if they're playing any kind of jazz, they usually start with bluegrass and move into it, but I started with the origins of jazz with the tenor banjo and then slipped over to the mandolin, and I've taken it from there."
Masefield's music sounds terribly contemporary. It's sometimes introspective, rock-influenced, angular. In other words, seemingly light years from Dixieland. Does Masefield hear the Dixieland in his music? "The way I strum and the type of chords I use, they're more tenor banjo chords than bluegrass mandolin chords. So I notice it, I don't know if other people do."
And so, alongside the hordes of bands that seem to be marching at a furious clip out of the Burlington, Vermont area, the JMP has been taking its unique sound on the road and touring like mad dogs. Having taken to another Medeski, Martin & Wood notion, the band has been traveling the significantly more extensive rock circuit, picking up newer, younger fans along the way, rather than working the older, jazz-familiar crowd. Hard touring has generated a healthy fan base, but, of course, it doesn't hurt to tap into the well-established legions of Phishheads. Whether or not by design, that's exactly what happened when Fishman joined the JMP. Fans of the popular rock act came to check out Phish extracurriculars, and more than a few found they liked what they heard.
Fishman has since returned to his drumming gig with Phish, and Masefield has since replaced him with Ari Hoenig, who will be sitting in on the current tour. While Masefield thoroughly enjoyed having Fishman as a drummer, he's a bit ambivalent about his trio's now-Phishy image. Not only does JMP get stuck with the occasional Phish side-project tag, but Masefield and his latest JMP incarnation continue to encounter confused Phish zealots on their current Fishman-less tour.
"Having Fishman along on [the previous] tour and CD helped to pull in a wider audience, and that has been wonderful for us, but there's also a negative element," he says. "It seems like, at almost every gig, there's somebody who yells out something about Jon Fishman or that they thought that Fishman was going to be at the show. That gets pretty old. We just try to excuse their navete--try and be polite and move along. It's been great, but it's also been a drag on a minor level."
Masefield considers Hoenig/Dahl-gren/Masefield the best JMP lineup yet. The new drummer has injected a freshness into the music that has made all three members itchy just to get on stage. By the time the three check into Wilbert's, they'll be plenty road-tested and ready to play. Without a doubt, spending time at a JMP concert looking for missing musicians is not the most constructive activity.
Jazz Mandolin Project. 9 p.m., Thursday, April 1, Wilbert's Bar & Grille, 1360 West Ninth Street, Warehouse District, $12 ($15 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.