JAZZ MANDOLIN PROJECT HITS WITH PHISH PHANS

(And regular folks, too)

by Tim Roberts

Most of the crowd that was clustered around the iron-gated doors to Jim Porter's Goodtime Emporium on the evening of Monday, January 26, appeared to be waiting for Lollapalooza tickets. There were lots of limp wool caps, people with various, interesting body piercings, long hair, floppy-cuffed jeans. They were, mostly and admittedly, fans of the alternative rock band Phish. And they were waiting to get inside Porter's to see the Jazz Mandolin Project (JMP), an acoustic jazz trio consisting ofJamie Masefield on mandolin,Chris Dahlgren on upright bass andJon Fishman - from the bandPhish - on drums. The Phish Phans, and everyone else who stopped by, were treated to a two-set, two-and-a-half hour show of engaging, phenomenal acoustic jazz.

The show at Jim Porter's is the fifth in the JMP's 16-gig schedule on what is billed as theTour De Flux, running from Vermont to Texas, then back again. The tour's title takes its name from the current state of the JMP. Burlington, Vermont-native Masefield disbanded the original JMP (withStacey Starkweather on electric bass andGabe Jarrett on drums) at the end of 1997, following three-and-a-half years of intense touring, to prepare for something new.

In the meantime," he said, "I thought it would be fun to put together a tour that would have some musicians who would just be fun people to play with. And look at it as a one-shot deal." So he recruited fellow Burlington native and friend Jon Fishman, and Chris Dahlgren, whom Masefield had met after a jam session in New York. Together, they play a jazz that incorporates swing, be-bop, Latin rhythms, an Irish jig, a squirt of Arabic and Eastern European folk music and an interpolation of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water."

The mandolin, the instrument found most often in Bluegrass, country, even ethnic music, has been successfully used in jazz by few performers, most notably David Grisman. However, Grisman's style still relies mostly upon the traditional use of the instrument: rapid picking and strumming of a single note. Masefield does that in his selections, but he also incorporates broad, easygoing strumming that opens the tone and range of the music. It produces a larger sound that meshes with the other two instruments.

A lot of my influences have come from jazz guitar," Jamie said in a telephone interview the night before the concert at Jim Porter's. "I really fell in love with jazz guitar and wanted to do something similar on the mandolin."

Another influence is Dixieland jazz, a style he has known since he took up playing the tenor banjo when he was 11 year old. He made his move to the mandolin in college when he felt he could generate some music that had a more contemporary sound. "I love the warm, wooden sound of it," he said.

That warm sound, smooth and swinging, was consistent throughout the concert. In both long sets, the band maintained an open texture in its sound, regardless of the rhythm. There were moments of traditional jazz structure, where mandolin would play a measure or two and bass would answer, and vice-versa. More than once, the JMP faded a song's volume as it finished playing, but jumped right back for a loud ending, setting the crowd wild. Fishman's drumming was used less as a metronome for the mandolin and bass to follow and more like a "third" instrument, interdependent on the other two. In other words, the JMP produced a cohesive sound similar to a trio of voices. There was no one star of the show. Musically, that is.

The show has been selling out in all of its venues so far during the Tour De Flux (the crowd at Porter's was SRO minutes before the show began), mainly from using the name of Phish drummer Jon Fishman in all its promotional stuff. Fishman had accepted immediately when Jamie asked him to join the JMP tour.

He told me that swinging on the drums is a really important thing to him," Jamie said, "much more important than a lot of the [Phish] fans might realize. He loves to play jazz and doesn't get that much of an opportunity to do it."

There are definitely more people coming because of Jon," Jamie admitted, but it's not an issue with him. "Jon is completely in it for the music and is supporting me as the bandleader."

It took two encores - a jig and a be-bop tune - for the crowd at Porter's to let JMP go for the evening. The trio would next head to North Carolina and points south the next morning. After the tour, Masefield will reassemble the JMP again as a more permanent group with different members.