Jazz Mandolin Project: Jungle Tango The Jazz Mandolin Project
Jungle Tango
Lenapee Records

Review by Ted Silverman. ©2003, all rights reserved.

Kicking off with an aggressive bass line backed by techno-trance drum beat, stabbing accordion lines and an ascending then descending melodic motif, it is difficult to tell whether the title track from the Jazz Mandolin's fourth album, Jungle Tango, defines the meeting point between trance and tango or if it qualifies as the soundtrack to some mysterious, high-speed, cinematic, Italian car chase.
     Jamie Masefield, accompanied by upright bassist Danton Boller, drummer Ari Hoenig, percussionist Chris Lovejoy, and Gil Goldstein on piano and accordion, have produced an intriguing mélange of groove, swirl, funk, and jazz with the latest incarnation of the Jazz Mandolin Project.
     Track number 2, "Freddy," explores a deeper trance groove and the dissonance -invoking potential of amplified mandolin. These sonic explorations aim for an Ozric Tentacles modality and draw no direct link with any standing mandolin tradition of the past. You won't find any affinity with David Grisman or Paul Glasse here. Masefield's arrangements veer radically from any mandolin-centered recording you have heard before.
     Not until track 3, the funky and meandering "At the Pershing," does any semblance of more commonplace jazz voicing emerge from the binary code of this decidedly futuristic-sounding CD. Gil Goldstein graces the track with the first accessible and melodically resonant passages of the album-but before you can say ahhh, the groove and beat replace the plangent explorations of the piano. The JMP's jazz is beat-centric and not particularly concerned with melodic themes. This is not to say that the songs aren't catchy nor that the chops are lacking, it just takes a long time to get oriented to the focus of the ideas herein. The kinds of sounds associated with mandolin and piano seem to be deeply buried or bookended by layers of bass and drum groove.
     Masefield's instrument is for the most part heavily processed, relying on digital reverb, feedback, distortion and chorus for expression. In this sense one could consider the bulk of the recording to showcase an inorganic use of the mandolin, but the tunes move along with an easy grace and the kind of sonic trickery that is fun to deconstruct with repeated listening.
     Masefield's strength seems to be more in the control and manipulation of intriguing tones than in having the sort of monster melodic chops that put guys like Grisman, Thile, Marshall, and Paul Glasse on the mandolin map. He can play some wild passages, but they lack the wow factor associated with those who can awe an audience without resorting to electronic trickery. There is also a decided avoidance of blues or roots arrangements. Chordal washes, rhythmic accents and bass-heavy groove mining take precedence over melodic extrapolations.
     Late in the game with track 7, "Reich's Boogie," the CD seems to live up to the expectations that define the term "Jazz Mandolin." But repetitive ostinatos over drum'n'bass underpinnings dominate even when familiar tones surface. And even later with track 9, "There's a Pipe in the Cellar," full throttle industrial beats define the groove.
     All things considered, Jungle Tango is an intriguing sonic amalgam that bares repeated listening and offers pulsing, contemporary grooves and psychedelic tonalities. Perfect for late night mood enhancement, but not the kind of record to spin for sunny day happiness inducement. Masefield continues to employ the mandolin as a sonic toolbox, generally avoiding the inherent tonal palette of the instrument. Jungle Tango is an interesting sonic experiment on par with music from the likes of Bill Frisell, the late James T. Kirk, and Medeski, Martin, and Wood. Don't seek it out if you long for Tiny Moore or Jethro Burns.

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