Jamie Masefield first assembled the Jazz Mandolin Project in 1993. At that time the band consisted of a rotating collection of musicians who joined Masefield at the Burlington co-operative coffeehouse, the Last Elm Café. Since that time, although the group’s line-up has solidified within the scope of a given tour, its active roster remains in flux (to grab a word from the title of the band’s 1999 release, Tour de Flux). On February first, Masefield will reinforce the dynamic nature of the line-up by hitting the road with a new version of the Project that reunites him with Jon Fishman at the same time that bass player Chris Dahlgren yields to Danton Bowler. The following conversation took place the day before Masefield was scheduled to perform a benefit with Mike Gordon and Doug Perkins at his home town church, while also completing work on his new album Xenoblast and preparing for the upcoming tour.
DB- I made the trek up to Burlington a few times when you first started out with the Jazz Mandolin Project at the Last Elm Café. How have your intentions for the group changed since then, if at all?
JM- I don’t think that my idea of what I wanted to do has changed that much since those early days. At that point I wanted to have a group, write tunes, tour and play music all the time. That’s still what I want to do. The name the Jazz Mandolin Project has worked very well for me, because it’s kind of an ongoing experiment. The mandolin isn’t a jazz instrument per se, so I’m trying to find a way to play the mandolin that sounds good and presents the sound that I hear in my head. I think that will be an ongoing process over my career.
DB- How has your compositional style changed over that time?
JM- In the early stage I was sitting in my room looking for happy accidents. Just strumming and looking for things that I thought sounded cool, and gluing them all together. Then that just seemed to hit a dead end. So I started studying with Ernie Stires, a composer here in Vermont. He convinced me to start composing on the piano and really examine things with the piano. He has provided a number of tools that I now use in writing tunes. So it has moved from just looking for cool sounds on the mandolin to really trying to construct ideas on the piano and then bring them to the group.
DB- Had you played piano prior to that point?
JM- No, but he told me that if I was going to be serious that was what I was going to have to do. The immediate feeling was, “oh my god, I’ve got to take on another burden” but it was a wonderful process. I started learning Bartok’s music for children, then moved on to Bach’s two part inventions and then went through all of those, and his three part inventions. It got to the point where I was dabbling a little bit into his prelude fugues but then I was on the road so much that I wasn’t able to move past that.
DB- Have you ever thought of touring with keyboards?
JM- I would really like that. It is something I have thought about often and I have a couple little ideas but they’re not close to fruition.
DB- Let’s talk about your instrument. What are the most common misperceptions about the mandolin?
JM- I’m not sure if there are any. I consider it a very limited instrument. You can’t bend notes because the strings are too tight and you don’t get much sustain for that same reason. So it’s a real challenge to do things but that’s kind of the whole process. Within the band in the van we call the group the little band that could. We’re so limited that it’s exciting to try to do big things because there’s only three instruments, one’s a big upright bass and the other’s this little mandolin. We do a classical piece, the Saber Dance. It’s written for a whole orchestra but we have worked up our own arrangement of it.
DB- Well you’ve always had very talented people in the group. This leads me to Chris Dahlgren. He won’t be playing with you in February?
JM- I’m going to be using some different musicians over the coming year. The next tour will be with Jon Fishman and a wonderful, young upright bass player from New York City, Danton Bowler. Chris is thirty-eight and he’s married and we were on the road so much that it was becoming too much for him. We hope to get Chris out from time to time but the group consumes so much time that I don’t expect people to be able to do it forever.
DB- Tell us a little about Danton.
JM- When I’m looking for new musicians, it’s amazing how many young jazz musicians there are in New York City. If you grow up anywhere and you want to become a jazz cat eventually you need to move to New York City. Most of them live in Brooklyn. It is this bizarre geographic phenomenon. A lot of the musicians I’ve been using over the years live in Brooklyn, so I’ve able to learn about new people just through the musicians I play with. That’s how I learned about Danton. He and I got together and really gelled in terms of the rhythmic and harmonic ideas that we both like to fool around with.
DB- How long does it take to work in a new player?
JM- I am going to rehearse with him for a couple of days in New York and then Fishman and Danton and I will rehearse for a full week before we head out on the road. He has all the material and he’s getting acquainted with it now. Then we’ll hit the road.
DB- Speaking of Fishman, describe his contribution to the group.
JM- I can’t say enough great things about Fishman and his playing. Aside from the fact that he’s a rock star and all of that stuff, on a musical level and a personal level he’s so dedicated to the music. I’ve always said he’s the most transparent drummer I’ve ever played with and I mean that in a complete complimentary way. He listens so closely to what you’re playing that it’s really telepathic. He is very careful about what he adds to the music. He’s very much about the compositions. You can tell that from all his experience in Phish. He doesn’t take a lot of drum solos or things like that. He’s very in tune with what you’re trying to accomplish with a piece of music. He’s a very disciplined musician. He’s such a positive thinker about all these things. He loves to walk on the stage and really get into the music. The crowd and all that is just a side thing. Sometimes I think musicians feel that they need to put on a big scene and Jon doesn’t feel that way at all. He’s just very married to the idea of the music, the compositions, the vibe.
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