Jamie Masefield, the main mandolinist of the Jazz Mandolin Project, has an official biography, and half of it reads like this: “Jamie plays a middle 1950s A-50 Gibson mandolin with an LR Bags bridge pickup. He also plays a semi hollow five-string electric mandolin (with a low C added) with an Alembic pickup custom built by John Knutson. He runs his Gibson through a unit which provides equalization specifically for his mandolin, which also has a vacuum tube emulator for overdrive. This unit was custom built by Robbie Hall, a genius in electrical engineering…”
In other words, the dude is serious about the mandolin.
The result of his years of musical explorations—which include touring the world with a New Orleans jazz band and playing for months in the isolation of a woodshed on a Vermont tree farm—is the Jazz Mandolin Project.
The band has inspired the type of devotion usually reserved for grungy hippie bands like the Grateful Dead or Phish. You know, fans trading tapes and set lists and starting fan clubs. They do all that for the Jazz Mandolin Project, a respectable jazz outfit who don’t seem that grungy, and don’t wear tie-dye.
Admittedly, the group did come together in 1993 at a Burlington, Vt. coffeehouse. That’s kind of hippie-ish. Three records later, they are one of the strongest voices of modern jazz fusion, a tricky genre that has sunk many well-meaning artists but allowed others to flourish.
I got kind of sad listening to JMP because I thought of Wes Montgomery. Make no mistake, that’s meant as a hearty compliment—some of JMP’s straight jazz tunes reminded me of Montgomery, one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time. Montgomery built up his chops in the 1940s by learning to play with his thumb, rather than a pick, because he worked all day as a welder and had to play at night, softly, so as not to wake his family.
After achieving the heights of jazz greatness, though, Montgomery began recording records of soft jazz covers of top 40 pop hits, and something went sour. The lesson being, jazz doesn’t always mix with other genres. Fusion has to be one of the most hit-or-miss genres in all of music.
Some have made it work, though, and the Jazz Mandolin Project follows in their footsteps. An obvious comparison is Weather Report, a group JMP actually covers. What is so admirable about JMP, though, is that they get beyond the ’70s sound that seemed to take hold in fusion with Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, and late Miles Davis, and still dominate the genre 25 years later. Their fusion does not have that ’70s sound, and therein lies its greatness. They do something really original and move the genre forward.
Consider the title track from their latest album, Xenoblast. Here’s how Masefield described the tune on the band’s Web site: “This was an effort to delve into the jungle, drum and bass vibe a little bit which is something I’ve been interested in lately. It’s ironic to us that computers and machines have been copying musical instruments—now we’re changing the tide and acoustic instruments are mimicking them.”
The same record has tunes that are tributes to the Beatles and Stravinsky. While they’re certainly not the first band to mix a bunch of disparate styles, what makes JMP unique is that they never get bogged down in the styles; they mine them for sounds and moods but always adhere to a strict jazz base. No matter how far out they get, the comforting jazz essentials are close by: upright acoustic bass walking up and down and smooth brush drums coming down like drizzling rain. And then that mandolin that evokes Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel and Grant Green and all the great jazz guitarists of old, while sounding just different enough, containing just enough of a hint of a banjo to remind you that you’re listening to something totally unique.
And it works, it really does. Welcome to fusion for the year 2000.
The Jazz Mandolin Project plays at the University of Montana Theater in Missoula on Wednesday, Oct. 10. For tickets call 888-MONTANA or visit www.vootie.com.