The Jazz Mandolin Project may now have this major label debut under its belt, but in various incarnations, the unconventional trio has been touring and recording since 1993. With the current jam band craze, and the legitimacy the genre is gaining in the jazz world, it is finally the right moment for leader/mandolinist Jamie Masefield’s quirky musical worldview. The opening title track on Xenoblast zips along with a compelling, kaleidoscopic synthesis of funk, progressive rock, "new acoustic" music, and jazz. Bassist Chris Dahlgren and drummer Ari Hoenig, their impeccable New York jazz credentials in tow, provide the kind of energetic yet supremely sensitive support that only the best rhythm section players can. (Dahlgren’s bass is recorded particularly well.) Masefield spins his web on top of it all, making up his own instrumental rules.
The JMP’s ties to the jam band scene couldn’t be clearer. Masefield hails from Vermont, Phish’s home turf. In fact, Phish drummer Jon Fishman used to play in the JMP. Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, a good friend of Masefield’s, co-engineered Xenoblast at The Barn, his Vermont studio. He guests on the final track, "Hang Ten." Fans of Phish and similar groups will automatically kindle to the JMP, especially the more jam-oriented tracks like "The Milliken Way" and "Spiders." But like the Grateful Dead before them, Phish is a band that tends to inspire either passionate loyalty or outright loathing. If you fall into the latter category, the JMP is probably not for you. However, an open-minded listen to Xenoblast yields many rewards: the strongly jazz-inflected mandolin on "Double Agent," the balladic tones of "Jovan," the folky textures of "Shaker Hill," and the 5/4 funk groove of the Stravinsky-inspired "Igor."
While it can be said that Masefield and the JMP are riding the crest of a commercial wave, they’re doing something undeniably different. And Masefield, not incidentally, has opened all kinds of doors for future mandolinists to walk through and explore.