The Jazz Mandolin Project: Mixed Media, Mixed Messages

Doug Collette By

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Think of Jamie Masefield
The Jazz Mandolin Project
Burlington, Vermont
April 8, 2006

Because Jamie Masefield's independence is matched only by his artistic integrity, it was perhaps inevitable that, after a decade of working on his Jazz Mandolin Project, he would venture into the realm of multimedia. The first of two nights at Burlington's intimate FlyynSpace found the Vermont native offering his presentation based on a Tolstoy short story with mixed results, but that's no reflection on his skills, those of his band—or ultimately, his own ambition.

For any artists in any medium, it's tricky to be topical. On the one hand, it's necessary to avoid preaching to the converted, or on the other, coming across pedantic about your point of view. To Jamie Masefield's credit, and notwithstanding an opening night audience peppered with fans and acquaintances inclined to his opinion, the leader of the JMP quite artfully navigated the terrain where his opinion mixed with his artistry.

For the better part of the hour-long adaptation of Tolstoy's "How Much Land Does A Man Need, which was funded in part by a Creation Grant from the Vermont Council of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, the audience was treated to a narrative reading of the Tolstoy story as it was written. It's difficult to allow your perspective to speak for itself under such circumstances (notwithstanding Masefield's concern about his audience's attention wandering) even though Elena Pankratov's voice and diction added to the atmosphere, in combination with video footage projected on a large screen in the intimate FlynnSpace. It was telling the screen took center stage, with the Jazz Mandolin Project in a tight circle to stage left: such as it was, the musical accompaniment definitely took secondary importance.

But again, as Masefield confided after the show, the presentation was designed that way. With the music adapted from large pieces and designed to accommodate the footage Masefield shot himself—containing video from his road tours as well as scenes designed to fit the action of the literature, some of which was ironically placed in contrast to the reading—it was conceived and executed as a supporting element, so much so that the playing of the JMP consumed perhaps a quarter of the show's sixty-minute duration.

It was vintage Masefield though, pure pastoral acoustic strains interwoven with the jazzy undertow provided by Michael O'Brien's standup bass, especially in combination with Michael "Mad Dog Mavridoglou on flugelhorn and, to a lesser extent, his keyboards. Sean Dixon supplied versatile use of his drum kit in addition to vibes and percussion to create exotic textures that, in sum, were every bit as vivid as the varied countryside and metropolitan shots Masefield put to film.

Yet, in contrast to the usually freewheeling bent of the Jazz Mandolin Project, there was no improvisation to speak of. The only jam that occurred this Saturday night was when an audience member asked for more music at the end of the Q&A, and the band gleefully traipsed through Steve Wonder's "Sir Duke, during which a three to five-minute interval wound that proverbial tapestry of sound with as much spirited sense of freedom the band had eschewed during the formal exhibition.

The contrast might only have been so clear for attendees familiar with the JMP's live shows. And it might well have been plenty, together with the recital itself, for most everyone else who found themselves in rapt attention during the better part of the evening, during the smoothly interwoven media. Think of Jamie Masefield's newest work as a success in terms of the technique and discipline of the band. If nothing else, then consider the message (as a graduate of environmental studies from the University of Vermont).

Then consider the music arranged for this project as an improvisational vehicle for the Jazz Mandolin Project, and you've got an evocative challenging first set of the night for the band in concert at a festival or a club. Hopefully as the project develops (as Jamie Masefield said it might), along with future live appearances and a DVD, there will be a full-fledged soundtrack CD, which ideally would be recorded live to capture the imagination and purity of this band at its best.

Photo Credit
Michelle Sammartino

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