The name attracts attention; outside of Dave Grisman, “mandolin jazz” is a contradiction of terms. This record, the Project’s second, comes after an impromptu tour with a new lineup, including the drummer from Phish. The novelty of the mandolin is soon forgotten; you remember the energy, the mad strumming, the restless exploration. This is many things, but it is serious music. Even if the leader wears a silly mask on the back cover.
Jon Fishman clicks off, and “Flux” starts softly. The mandolin of Jamie Masefield states the theme, playing single-string with chords at the end of each phrase. The sound is clean, and Masefield plays it like a small guitar. Chris Dahlgren drones a bass behind him as Masefield starts to strum – it’s like he’s playing in triplicate! His solo is relaxed, back-porch jazz, with plenty of chords and cute little licks. This is happy stuff, and the high notes enhance it. When the solo ends, the strum returns, and it propels the others: Dahlgren gives us some fuzz bass, and Fishman gets a nice shimmer from his cymbals.
“Chapeau” sneaks down the alley with sour notes and sinister demeanor. A catchy riff for 4 bars (sounds like the opening to an upbeat song), then back to the skullduggery. Masefield strums the riff again, then Dahlgren has a sinuous solo; his meaty tone slides around, suggesting toughness and cool. Masefield’s comping is simple plucking and the occasional chord. His own solo slides the notes and gets a little twang in there, then he plays the “Milestones” theme in an odd key, with a high plunk from near the tuning pegs. Just when the track glows with the warmth of the thick chords, the villains return at the end. What did they steal? Boredom, I guess.
The inspiration comes all over the place, from a variety of odd sources. “Good and Plenty” starts with a broken music box, played very fast. “Barber’s Hint” borrows its chords from a classical work by Samuel Barber. (Masefield says he puzzled for a week before realizing why the chords sounded familiar.) And “Clip” owes something to John Cage – Dahlgren “prepared” his bass with a couple of paper clips. Making for a rattly racket that fits the track like a glove. And more genres enter the mix: Dahlgren gets funky on his “Good and Plenty” solo, with splashy noises” and electronic twiddles. “Barber’s Hint” sounds like a soundtrack to a silent comedy, with chase music, snatches of banjo, clunks and knocks from Fishman, and what sounds like –“Lullaby of Birdland”? Masefield has a great solo, where he slides a little and uses echo, making his sound even thicker. It also quotes the James Bond theme at the end – is this eclectic or what?
“Boodha” is Dahlgren’s best moment, where he bows sad and low. Masefield handles the theme, a sad slow blues. His tone is liquid, his blues heartfelt, and it may be his best moment on the disc. Dahlgren’s solo is bowed and very like his opening statement. A blues that makes you feel good. Whod’a thunk it?
My favorite tracks come near the end. “Clip” features the modified bass, sounding like a big cigar-box guitar. Masefield sounds like a guitar hero with his mad trills and killer riffs. The clipped bass gets a solo; since it now sounds like a percussion instrument, Fishman joins him for a duet. Then the juice is turned on; Dahlgren quotes “Night Train” and freaks out. Heavy, man.
“The Phoenicians”, written by Gil Goldstein (he played with Pat Martino and others) has a gentle theme enhanced when Fishman plays the cuica, a Latin noisemaker. Masefield plays the single-string theme with feeling as the bass takes broad steps. It has a nice mood to it, and you could say the same for the album.
These guys get high marks for ambition, and for a sound they are alone in making. Some of this sounds like Steve Tibbetts’ acoustic-meets-jazz, but more outgoing, and with a definite sense of humor. If this was a one-time band, I’m glad they recorded it.