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Jazz Jam

The mandolin, like the cowbell, is a misunderstood instrument. Is it bluegrass? Classical? Latin? And while you will most likely never hear an overzealous fan scream "More mandolin!" at a concert or hear a killer minute-plus mandolin solo, the instrument has its place in history. You can pretty much incorporate it into any genre of music if you're crafty enough.

That includes a jam band.

But not just any jam band. We're not talking about drum circles and bass solos here. The Jazz Mandolin Project is pretty much what the name implies -- a group that combines classic jazz, rock, funk, and Latin flavors into one cohesive package, tied together by bandleader Jamie Masefield's dexterous, mandolin-plucking fingers.

"Unlike most mandolin players, I come from a jazz background instead of a bluegrass one," Masefield says. He grew up in a family of musicians in upstate New York that frequently held jazz jam sessions at home, and an uncle played the tenor banjo during those ragtime-filled evenings. Masefield liked what he heard, and he eventually ended up taking banjo lessons and submerging himself in old jazz records until he went to college. By then, he switched to the mandolin and began to feel like doing something more contemporary.

"I heard guitarists like Pat Metheny and Jim Hall, and I wondered what I could do on the mandolin in a more modern style," he says.

It was in 1993 that he began the Jazz Mandolin Project in his adopted town of Burlington, Vermont, where he has lived for 20 years. Back then, he would simply book a night every month at a local coffeehouse to play with any musicians who were willing to pay a donation at the door. Eventually, the informal gig began to morph into something more structured, and by the summer of 1996, the group's first lineup (with Gabe Jarrett on drums and Stacey Starkweather on electric bass) had released its self-titled debut album and also played its first European gig at the North Sea Festival in Holland.

In 1997, the original lineup parted ways. Masefield contacted drummer Jon Fishman (from Phish) to play drums and bassist Chris Dahlgren for what was to become an eight-week tour, documented on the album Tour de Flux, released by Accurate Records in January 1999. The following year brought JMP's first major-label release, Xenoblast, which came out on the Capitol Records-owned Blue Note Label. The group just wasn't feeling the major label vibe, and its latest album, Jungle Tango, recently came out on the band's own label, something Masefield is perfectly happy with.

"We prefer to do things ourselves instead of having someone else do it for us," he says.

The current lineup of JMP includes Masefield, Mark Giuliana on drums, and Scott Ritchie on upright bass. They recently added a fourth member to the power trio, a man who goes simply by the name Mad Dog, on trumpet and keyboards.

Like the name implies, Jungle Tango cuts through ten instrumental jazz numbers, painting each with experimental, psychedelic brush strokes, and hints of world music. Some songs are bouncy classic jazz compositions, and others, like "Freddie," are more ominous and ethereal, kicking it out edge-of-madness Apocalypse Now style. On tour, JMP includes originals as well as covers of Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Stevie Wonder, and Led Zeppelin.

Someone once said jazz is the sound of surprise, and JMP reiterates this. You might even get a mandolin solo.