Photo by Ryan Levy

The latest New Groove selected through our Jambands 250 Poll is the John Mancini Band. The group, which is based in Baltimore, consists of Tom Haller on drums and percussion, bassist David Wright and its namesake on guitar, vocals, piano. At times the core trio expands to include a horn section as well. Mancini is a professor at Towson University and brings an eloquence to bear as he discusses his group’s music.

Can you talk about the development of the group? How did you meet everyone and how did the current line-up solidify?

When Tom Haller, our drummer, decided to return to school after his former band’s run with Drive Thru Records didn’t pan out, we met. This was around the time I started teaching at the Towson University, and Tom wasn’t a typical student, so we got along. We traded music, original and otherwise, decided to record a song together. Some buddies of mine from RISD were starting a record company in Brooklyn and wanted to help me put out a solo album. I got Tom to record some drum tracks on it. We played a couple of local shows as a duo, and within a couple months met our bass player, David Wright. Our first show as a trio was in December, 2007. Since then, we’ve had several musicians join us in the studio and on the stage, but the trio has remained consistent.

In assembling the band did you have an idea of what you wanted from the get go or did it evolve over time?

There was a certain sound I wanted at first, something along the lines of Bob Dylan and Band’s Basement Tapes – one of my favorites. But what started as a singer-songwriter studio project has evolved into something bigger than what I could have accomplished on my own. Now we’ve begun to write together and really expand our sound. It’s as much about the rhythm section now, locking into a groove, as it is the songs. Singer-songwriter rock n’ roll meets tight funk.

What were doing from a musical perspective prior to the John Mancini Band?

In the summer of 2007 I was driving up and down the east coast recording at different people’s houses, apartments, barns, etc., trying to put together what I hoped would be this magnum opus studio project: my big debut. After editing a bunch of tracks together at my friend’s place in Brooklyn, the computer crashed, and I lost all the files. That was a bummer, but it was eclipsed by different kind of crash, and the loss of a close friend – the kind of thing that puts your priorities in order. Right around then Tom and I met Dave, so it all worked out for the best. We’ve got a band.

In terms of musical backgrounds and interests, what does everyone bring to bear?

The three of us come from truly diverse backgrounds. Tom grew up around the magical combination of traditional Polka and Hawaiian music. He’s also a big Radiohead fan, and his first band was a power pop outfit. Dave developed his talent playing bass in church, which he still does. His heroes include James Jamerson and Victor Wooten. I think he was born with a bass in his hands, but he can’t confirm that. I’ve always gravitated to the great songwriters, everything from Tin Pan Alley to the folk revival to contemporary stuff. My dad played trumpet in rock bands when I was growing up. He teaches rock n’ roll history and has a deep record collection and high end stereo system in his man cave, so I’ve listened to everything. I saw the Grateful Dead for the first time when I was fifteen. That carried over onto Phish tour in the 90’s, when I went to art school and studied film, which incorporates a lot of different art forms. My senior project was a long animated music video I made with my friends and family.

How would you describe the vitality and support of your local music scene in Baltimore?

Billy Holiday, Frank Zappa, David Byrne, Tupac Shakur: a short list of innovative artists that have hailed from Baltimore. It says something about the character of the city I think. I guess we should add Animal Collective to that list – they’re occupying strange new territory. Somebody told me Baltimore was named the “best music scene” in 2008. It’s a pretty laid back, inexpensive city to live in, and that makes playing out easy to do. We have one of the best publicly supported radio stations in the country – I’ve traveled a lot and listened; I don’t think I’m exaggerating. Also, The Bridge has tapped into and helped solidify a great jamband scene in the area.

Do you write all the band’s music? If so, how it is typically presented to the group and how does it then come together? If not, can you explain the process?

I still write the majority of our songs. Melody and lyrics tend to be my main thing, but the three of us take turns directing, especially when it’s in a formative stage. Dave and I use loop pedals to present melodic ideas to each other – chord changes and stuff. Sometimes it can come together quickly, like with our song, “Ray of Light.” Other times I need to sort of live with an idea for a while to get at the lyrics and play with the structure. Tom is also good at that, giving to something that I might’ve considered a strum-along a more a dynamic sense of rhythm. Lately we’ve been recording jams and trying to pull song ideas out of that.

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