Jazz Mandolin Project

JAZZ ARRIVES IN A VARIETY OF SHAPES AND sounds, including the piano, horns and guitar but the mandolin? “Well, the (audience) reaction has been great but also surprise,” said Jamie Masefield of his unique trio, the Jazz Mandolin Project. “People hear the name and they’re curious. And they often never expect it to be what it actually ends up being.”

It’s easy to understand any first-impression confusion surrounding the outfit since the free-flowing genre and the eight-stringed instrument are hardly associated together. But Masefield doesn’t worry about it. “I think it’s more of a sonic experience than listeners would have expected. Some people expect three mandolin players performing some old jazz standards, and really, it’s a pretty hard-hitting experience that moves around quite a lot,” he said.

The Project’s latest version is comprised of Masefield, bassist Chris Dahlgren and drummer Ari Hoenig. The new album, Xenoblast, due May 9th on Blue Note Records, displays their knack for lengthy jazz-based improvisational journeys, which venture into rock, blues and elsewhere. While jazz purists may crave something more familiar and recognizable, the band’s sound and concerts have attracted a slew of college-age listeners – uncharacteristic of the genre’s mature core audience.

“One of the things that makes us unique is that we’re one of the few jazz bands that can play a jazz festival and be considered a jazz group and the majority of our fans are young people,” the 34-year-old Masefield said. “It’s kind of rare to be throwing out fairly complex harmonic material and having young people really dig it.”

The Jazz Mandolin Project is obviously not your run-of-the-mill trio. Even the group’s name sounds more like an experiment than a band, scientists instead of musicians. And to a certain extent, the members of The Jazz Mandolin Project are scientists, pushing the boundaries of jazz beyond the typical through experimentation, all the while maintaining a sense of the acceptable and accessible.

“In the van, we like to call ourselves The Little Band That Could,” Masefield told POLLSTAR. “It’s a challenge to defy the odds in making a big sound with three instruments that you wouldn’t expect that of – upright bass, mandolin and drums. So, yeah, it’s kind of a different twist on things.”

The Vermont native started the Project in 1994 and soon landed a no-pay monthly gig at a coffeehouse in Burlington. “I was doing music full time and I was living on a tree farm way up in the mountains where I was working for my rent,” he said. “So I was doing the struggling-musician thing and it ended up working out.”

Just creating the everyday pop band can be an uphill climb, but forming a jazz outfit with a mandolin lead would seem to exponentially compound the challenge. Fortunately, Masefield’s determination is strong. “There were definitely fears,” he admitted. But “I was adamant about trying to succeed with music and just see what would happen. …

Ari Hoenig, drums
Chris Dahlgren, bass
Jamie Masef

“And it was with the notion that we were going to play what we felt like playing, rather than if we were in a certain restaurant and needed to keep it at a certain vibe. So we started going 90 miles per hour playing stuff we wanted to play, and it really translated to the listeners. They enjoyed the exploring and the adventure and the risk-taking.”

The Jazz Mandolin Project’s shows quickly evolved into events among the Vermont tape-trading scene. That, combined with the Internet, helped launch the trio nationwide, even before the group toured outside of its northeastern home base.

“Our first real tour was out to Madison, Wis., and back, and I thought to myself, ‘Who in Chicago is going to come here? We’ve never played anywhere near here.’ And lo and behold, there was a crowd. It just blew my mind,” Masefield said. “It was an amazing kind of epiphany for me that we could go to other parts of the country and people would know who we were.”

Masefield booked the Project’s initial gigs before securing the help of Boulder, Co.-based Madison House, which led the band further into the embracing jam-band scene. The group later swapped agencies and signed with Opus One Productions in Pittsburgh; management duties are handled by Guru Productions of New York. With business matters in check, the group enjoys touring the jazz and hippie-band circuits, as well as clubs and small theatres.

A sample of the Project’s upcoming tour dates includes support slots for a variety of artists, including Bob Weir’s Ratdog at Atlanta’s Music Midtown festival, the funky Meters at the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in New York and David Grisman at the Bell Atlantic in Philadelphia.

“There’s so many young people that are really committing a lot of their time listening to this kind of organic music that’s cranking out right now. They know what bands are making smoke,” Masefield said. “It is a weird concept for the mandolin to be playing jazz … but really, the fans have been responsible for setting up the situation that we have.”