When Jamie Masefield traded in the original rhythm section of his Jazz Mandolin Project last December for a temporary lineup that included Phish drummer and old college compadre Jon Fishman, he shored up his position as favored jazz son of the jam band culture.
But, despite what appeared to outsiders as a transparent attempt to curry audience favor, Masefield and Fishman were serious jazz players. And with seasoned New York jazzman Chris Dahlgren rounding out the trio on upright bass, they hammered that fact home for sixteen nights last January and February, traversing the eastern half of the United States on the aptly named Tour de Flux.
Not that there was ever any question about Masefield’s musical chops. With the first iteration of Jazz Mandolin Project he produced some of the most titillating fusion jazz this side of Hancock’s Headhunters, repeatedly wowing normally stolid audiences at coveted showcases like the Newport Jazz Festival.
On the Tour de Flux, however, Masefield came into his own as a bebop player (an unheard-of genre for the mandolin). eschewing McLaughlin-esque shreds and electric bass slides in favor of a more organic, buoyant feel. The forthcoming Tour de Flux LP, a live in-studio snapshot of the tour, is actually the first true mandolin-led bebop recording.
Following the album’s completion, Masefield and Dahlgren parted ways with Fishman and picked up Boston-based percussionist Scott Neumann. In between tours, Masefield took the time to talk to jambands.com about the album, his dealings with Fishman and the other members of Phish, and his ongoing, sometimes revolutionary relationship with the jazz world.
Did you have an album in mind when you started the Tour de Flux?
Nope. It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. Right in the van driving from one gig to another, we decided that after this tour we should go right into the studio and lay all this stuff down. The music was just going so well, you know? How does Tour de Flux stack up against your first record?
It’s further down the jazz avenue. The first album feels like a more collegiate effort. Some of the tunes were written quite a while ago. Since then, I’ve been focused more on jazz and also classical music.
The album definitely has a more organic feel than Jazz Mandolin Project, your first record. It’s well-produced, but without all the studio shellac.
I know what you mean – Tour de Flux is more of a bare bones type of thing without a lot of reverb and layering and goo. It was recorded live in the studio.
Recording live in the studio – that’s more of a jazz than a rock modus operandus, right?
When the jazz guys go into make a record they often whip it off in one day’s time. There’s not as much emphasis on everyone playing individually. You’re hoping that you’re going to get that interplay, that cohesive sound of everyone playing together. You want to capture the energy and not be so concerned with your own personal solo and whether it had all the fancy notes, but the whole sound.
Will it help – commercially speaking – that you have Jon Fishman on the album?
Definitely it’s going to help that there’s a name on the record. Jon’s a bona fide rock star. Every gig we played on the tour was sold out and everyone was screaming for Jon Fishman. Jon handles it really well. He just wants to play music. He loved it. We all loved it. There was something new about the tour for all of us.
Jon even got nostalgic driving in a van from gig to gig. It was almost like he’d start crying. He’d say, “Aww man! This brings back so many great memories. This is the way it should be. I love driving in this van.”
What did Jon bring to the table musically?
One of the things that I realized about Jon was that he’s one of the most transparent drummers I’ve ever played with. It can be like bombs going off all around you when you’re trying to play on top of the drums, but it wasn’t like that with him. He listens to everything you do and responds without any unnecessary flash. It was as if the drums weren’t there and I mean that in a positive way. That’s a hard thing for some people to hear because Jon’s always doing silly, funny things. But I tell you, when that guy sits down at the drums, he’s all about music.
I came back from that tour saying, “Jon doesn’t play the drums. Jon plays music.”
The last time you played in Chicago, you prefaced one of the new compositions with a request from the audience. We were supposed to come up with the name and description of a small Southern town Well, I was with a girl from Georgia who had never heard Jazz Mandolin Project before, and was only half-into the show until that point. She shouted out “McDunna, Georgia,” and the two of you chatted back and forth for a minute. She thought that kind of audience interplay was great and was hooked for the rest of the show.
(laughs) That’s great! That’s part of it – getting everyone together. I think of times when I’ve gone to shows. Those moments when you start to fade away from the music. You’re not engaged any more and you’re starting to look around or think about what you have to do at home. I think to myself, “These people are paying money and they’re hoping that you’re going to give them something special.” That’s very much a part of what I want to give them.
That audience interplay seems almost non-existent at many of the jazz shows I’ve been to lately.
I know, I know. I’ve been to shows in New York City at Sweet Basil or the Village Vanguard or whatever. Those crowds are very polite. They all clap at the proper time and everything, but sometimes you feel…I know when we play there’s an interaction of energy. You play, you throw something out there and you see the audience receive it. Then, you’re just loving it when you get it back at you.
And you feel that this doesn’t happen too much at those traditional jazz venues you mentioned?
Well, there’s all this discussion about jazz becoming a classic type of art form. Is it growing or has it become a museum? When you have a moment, an event like that where the musicians are playing everything perfect and the crowd’s clapping at the right time, but nothing’s going down, that’s not what you want.
I think jazz is all about improvising and taking risks. As soon as you start taking risks, it’s amazing. You could be playing a solo and you’ve got all these great tricks and you’re running through your great tricks, but the audience isn’t engaged. As soon as you abandon that kind of thing and do something that you’re not sure of, you’ve suddenly turned all their heads. They’re all there with you. You’re saying, “We’re all on the same level here and now I’m gonna risk something and it could fall flat on its face. But if it doesn’t, it’s gonna be this amazing little event.”
And even if it does fall flat on its face, people are still with you because they’re drawn in by the effort you’ve made.
Yes! When I break a string in the middle of a solo, the fans are with me more. Suddenly there’s a new obstacle. They’re rooting for you like, oh man, how’s he gonna make it through this now that that string’s flopping around in his face. It requires a humanness, something engaging. If the musician is engaged, there’s a very good chance that the crowd’s engaged.
That’s how the project really got started. I started booking one date a month at this little cafe and I tried to convince other players to come and we would do whatever was fun for us. We don’t have to play “Green Dolphin Street” and you play the head and I play the solo and we trade fours with the drums. Screw that. Let’s do what we have fun doing. Hopefully, if we’re really doing that, then the crowd is gonna have fun too, because they’re going to sense the creativity. Keep yourself engaged. Stay on a personal journey and people will focus on it.
How did you meet Chris Dahlgren and Scott Neumann?
I met Chris in 1995 at another bass player’s New Year’s Day jam session. The session was going along and I was playing and Chris got up and played and I immediately heard something in his playing that was different than everyone else’s. There was a real bop thing going on. I went back up to Vermont, but I always remembered that encounter and wished I had some reason to play with that guy. Then I decided to disband the group and this idea of the Tour de Flux came about. I thought this was the time to call Chris up and see if he’s interested in this and I’d love to play with an upright player.
And Scott…After the Tour de Flux was over, we decided to have auditions because I wanted to find out what my options were, to meet as many people as possible. I was really looking for something special. We conducted auditions in Boston and New York City. When we were collecting names, Scott Neumann’s name came up over and over with different musicians. He ended up being the guy. He’s a wonderful individual on a personal level and he’s also a real seasoned player.
Was it hard to get them to leave the more traditional jazz world and go out with a jazz mandolin?
No. On the contrary, they were chomping at the bit for a different take on things. For a guy who’s busy doing session week in New York City to suddenly hit the road and play for the types of crowds that we play for, I think it’s been a real breath of fresh air.
How have they helped Jazz Mandolin Project?
For Chris, the upright is just a totally different sound and it’s something I’m really excited about. The upright and the mandolin have completely different registers. The upright’s a very low sounding instrument and the mandolin’s very high whereas with the electric we were overlapping in that midzone quite a lot. With the upright, when a note is hit, that note is two feet wide. And it makes the whole room rumble. For the mandolin being such a high instrument, it’s great to have a fat low end. Also, Chris’ ability to bow anything adds a lot. Another thing, the upright bass is such a difficult instrument to play physically speaking. You really have to muscle the thing. When you touch upon something that reaches the audience it’s such a humane event. The upright is such a tough instrument to play so it’s not about a lot of notes or flashiness. It’s about touching someone in a really simple, basic way. That’s really what the music is all about.
With Scott I just feel like he’s such a well-rounded player and someone who’s been around a lot and is very seasoned, sensible drummer who lays down a beautiful carpet for me to play on.
Both Chris and Scott have played with some serious musicians like Herb Ellis, Joshua Redman and Roy Hargrove. Now, I know you don’t boast that kind of resume, but you’ve been around music a long time. And wasn’t your grandfather a professional musician?
My grandfather was an upright bass player with Paul Leitman and Tommy Dorsey. He wasn’t really around much when I was a kid, but there were a lot of musical people at a lot of family functions and Dixieland jam sessions going on. I thought the banjo sounded great and I wanted to get in on them, so the folks got me one for Christmas and that’s how I got started. I took lessons from this guy in town every Saturday for seven years until I had to go to college.
When did you make the transition to the mandolin?
I did that at college where I was doing a lot of jamming with other people in the hallways and dorms and stuff. It seemed as if the mandolin was something that was a more appropriate instrument for that medium. The tenor banjo (not the 5-string) has such an historic sound to me. If you try and play a Grateful Dead tune or something, it doesn’t cut it.
Did any family members try to dissuade you from making the switch?
I’ve been fortunate in that everyone has always been supportive of any of my musical endeavors. When I got to UVM, I immediately got into a bunch of Dixieland bands. Everyone needed a banjo player up there. There were a surprising number of gigs. It actually supplied me with my pocket money for my college four years. I was still playing the banjo a lot, but also picking up the mandolin.
You met up with the guys in Phish right around that time. How did that happen?
Mike Gordon was one of those people who was picking in the hallway. I came back from classes and saw this guy. We started rappin’ and I said, “Hey, lemme get my mandolin.” We started playing. Then the next thing, we had a trio going. Then he explained that had just signed up with another group and that was going to be his first priority, but he was really looking forward to playing with us too. Eventually I met the other guys.
Phish originally had another guitarist named Jeff Holdsworth. Did you know him too?
Jeff and I actually went to Alaska together. Well…not just us two. A whole bunch of people decided to go to Alaska for the summer and we were among them. He was a wonderful flat picker. Really good player. I think it was about the time that he and Phish’s paths were diverging.
The party line is that Jeff found God.
The religion was one thing, but I think they were starting to go different ways before that. It’s just my own guessing, but I think Trey was starting to study with Ernie Stires at that point and felt like a piano would be a good thing to have in the group. Jeff supposedly was getting tired of it and wasn’t as open-minded to all of the antics and things.
Trey references Ernie Stires a lot, and I know you study with him, but no one really knows who he is. To us fans, he’s like this nebulous “wise man on the mountain.”
Well, Ernie is 71, and he definitely is the wise man on the mountain to me. He’s got an incredible pedigree. He’s the nephew of Samuel Barber, one of the most famous American composers ever. His grandmother was a famous opera singer. He grew up with a real wealth of art and music all around him. He’s been composing very special, very unique music for quite a while. He relates to young people so well. He’s convinced me of so many things that have been so beneficial to me in terms of writing music and thinking about music.
Who else besides Ernie has had an influence on your music?
One of the questions that I get asked a lot is how have David Grisman and Sam Bush influenced me. And I answer that other than Matt Mundy, I really haven’t been influenced by mandolin players very much at all. I haven’t come from a bluegrass background like most mandolin players. I started with the tenor banjo and dixieland. The real influence for me has been the modern jazz guitar players. Jim Hall. Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Pat Metheny.
Is that Matt Mundy of Aquarium Rescue Unit?
That’s right. Matt and I became really good buddies. We were calling each other up about once a week and playing to each other over the phone. He’s such a talented guy. It opened up a lot of ideas for me. Because he’s from the south, he knew all the Widespread guys, so he kinda fell into that. But Matt could play anything. He’s one of the most gifted guys I’ve ever met.
You also mentioned John Scofield. Have you heard the new album he did with Medeski, Martin and Wood?
Yeah, A Go Go. I really like it a lot. I like it better than any other Scofield album and any other MMW album. I feel like each one brought the other one into a really great space.
Scofield – and jazz musicians in general – play with many peers during their careers as opposed to rock where you have a “band” and you stick with it. In light of the jazz paradigm, it makes sense that you split up the original Jazz Mandolin Project Trio and found two new musicians. However, it didn’t seem like a lot of your fans – who are more used to the rock paradigm – understood this. How would you explain it to them?
I guess I’d say that Jazz players are improvisers and they carry a lot of tools in their toolbags. And they’re able to play in a lot of different types of situations. It’s actually a really healthy thing to move around and play with different people. You pick up different things.
It’s not just about playing a tune with 1-4-5 chords and playing that same tune over and over again. Everyone in jazz has their own style and their own take on things. All through the history of jazz, guys have been moving from one band to another. It’s a really fresh, growing thing to do.
I think that did really scare a lot of the younger audience when that happened. Hopefully now, it’s provided a little insight into the jazz world for them. The type of thing that we’re doing lends itself to longevity. As long as you’re playing and you’re improvising, you can go forever.
Isaac Josephson is Director of Online Communities at JAMtv/Rolling Stone Network and the co-founder of Centerstage Chicago. His ramblings have also appeared in various other publications, most notably Musichound: The Essential Album Guide to Rock and Down Beat.