A Jazzman Turned Builder Says That In Both Fields, The Good Stuff's Made To Last | KUOW News and Information

A Jazzman Turned Builder Says That In Both Fields, The Good Stuff's Made To Last

Jan 9, 2016
Originally published on January 11, 2016 11:04 am

Vermont musician Jamie Masefield has been improvising on the jazz mandolin for decades. He's recorded six albums, including one with Blue Note Records, and brings everything from folk and funk to the literature of Leo Tolstoy to the stage. But some years back, his eclectic creativity brought him to an unexpected second career.

When I meet Masefield at work, he's chipping away at some pinkish stone with a small hammer. "In the industry we call it 'rainbow stone,'" he offers. "It's very nice to work with."

When he's not making music, Masefield is a professional dry stone mason. This means he builds walls and foundations and sculptures that support themselves, without any concrete smooshed between the cracks. Today he's building a retaining wall.

"The first concern is longevity," he explains. "We want to build something that lasts a long time, that has real functionality, that's not just there to please a homeowner for 15 years."

Another word for this is stability — which is exactly what Masefield was looking for when he got into masonry. He'd been living on the road with his band, the Jazz Mandolin Project – "driving around the country in a van, playing over 100 shows a year, sleeping in funky motels alongside the roaring highway," as he describes it. He was ready for a change.

"I was feeling more of a need to have a vegetable garden and eat good food and be healthy and be outside," Masefield says. "And so I contacted an old friend of mine who had a well-established landscaping company, and the first day I went to work for him, he had me building the corner of a stone wall. And I loved it."

Andrew Louden, a master craftsman with the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain, says he's not surprised that someone with Masefield's background would find their way into his field.

"I think anybody who comes into dry stone walling, it's helpful if you've got some sort of artistic leaning or background," Louden says. "Because unlike building in any other medium, the stone's completely irregular."

It takes creativity and discipline. Louden's association runs a series of tests to certify professional builders at different levels. He judged Masefield's intermediate test, which ran seven hours. "For me, the timed element's one of the more important parts of the test, because the craftsman has to prove that he's economically viable," Louden says.

Masefield passed. But because he also wants to stay musically viable, when he's on the job site, he's compulsive about protecting his hands. "I wear gloves all the time when I'm working," Masefield says. "Going to the bank and saying, 'Yeah, this is on my business account; I'm a stone mason,' sometimes I walk away thinking, 'That guy doesn't believe me. He doesn't think I'm a stone mason. My hands are too soft because I'm wearing these gloves all the time.'"

"He puts himself into whatever it is he's doing pretty sincerely," says Phish drummer Jon Fishman, who has played with Masefield on and off since the two were in college, most recently in an outfit called Masefield Perkins Fishman Bolles. From the beginning, Fishman says, he recognized a kindred spirit.

"Jamie was one of those people — like, 'Oh, this guy's pretty dedicated.' This is another human who it's not just a hobby for," Fishman says. "And to be perfectly honest, when he started to go down the stone building route, I was actually a little jealous."

It's tempting to think that Masefield inhabits two totally different creative worlds. However, he says jazz and masonry have something fundamental in common, and points to a musical practice known as "playing changes."

"When we're playing changes, we're soloing over those harmonic changes in that particular tune — and so you're very quickly making decisions about what you're going to play," he says. "When I'm doing stonework, I often feel like we're in the midst of playing changes, because every stone you place needs some consideration. But you can't dwell on it all day long."

Just like improvisation. And yet, he adds, both crafts are also about the pursuit of timelessness.

"At the end of every day of doing stonework, I can look back and hopefully say, 'That looks good, and that's what we've done today, and that's going to last a really long time.' It's similar in music. If you're lucky enough to play some really great music one day, you can look back and say, 'Well, we've got that.' That's recorded, or the audience has heard that. Hopefully that's had an effect on them in some way that they're taking home with them.

The task is monumental, so to speak: make something for this moment, and at the same time make something for the ages — for everyone. How many of us are trying to do that?

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jamie Masefield is a Vermont musician who's been improvising jazz on the mandolin for decades. He's recorded six albums, including one for Blue Note records, and brings everything from folk and funk to the literature of Leo Tolstoy to the stage - although, so far, not the stylings of BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. Anyway, a while back, Mr. Masefield's eclectic creativity brought him an unexpected second career, and it involves some heavy lifting. Vermont Public Radio's Angela Evancie explains.

ANGELA EVANCIE, BYLINE: Sometimes Jamie Masefield does this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EVANCIE: And sometimes he does this.

(SOUNDBITE OF A HAMMER HITTING STONE)

JAMIE MASEFIELD: In the industry we call it rainbow stone. And it's very nice to work with.

EVANCIE: Masefield is chipping away at pinkish stone with a small hammer. When he's not making music, he's a professional dry stone mason. This means he builds walls and foundations and sculptures that support themselves without any concrete smushed between the cracks. Today he's building a retaining wall.

MASEFIELD: The first concern is longevity. We want to build something that lasts a long time, that has real functionality, that's not just there to please a homeowner for 15 years.

EVANCIE: Another word for this is stability, which is exactly what Masefield was looking for when he got into masonry. He had been living on the road with his band, the Jazz Mandolin Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MANDOLIN PROJECT SONG)

EVANCIE: Some of their stuff actually sounds like the musical equivalent of life on tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MANDOLIN PROJECT SONG)

MASEFIELD: Driving around the country in a van playing over a hundred shows a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MANDOLIN PROJECT SONG)

MASEFIELD: Sleeping in funky motels alongside the roaring highway.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MANDOLIN PROJECT SONG)

MASEFIELD: Bands in trailers, and tour managers, full-time employees, booking agents, publicity people.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MANDOLIN PROJECT SONG)

EVANCIE: He was ready for a change.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MANDOLIN PROJECT SONG)

MASEFIELD: I was feeling more of a need to have a vegetable garden and eat good food and be healthy and be outside. And so I contacted an old friend of mine who had a well-established landscaping company in the area. And the first day I went to work for him, he had me building the corner of a stone wall. And I loved it.

ANDREW LOUDEN: It draws weirdos and strange types of people.

EVANCIE: Andrew Louden is a master craftsman with the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain and a pretty big deal in the world of stone.

LOUDEN: And so I think it's more perhaps a lifestyle choice. But I think anybody who comes into dry stone walling, it's helpful if you've got some sort of artistic leaning or background. Because unlike building in any other medium, the stone's completely irregular.

EVANCIE: It takes creativity and discipline. Louden's association runs a series of tests to certify professional builders at different levels. He judged Masefield's intermediate test. It ran seven hours.

LOUDEN: It's more difficult test. There's more involved. For me, the timed element's one of the most important parts of the test because the craftsman has to prove that he's economically viable.

EVANCIE: Masefield passed. But because he also wants to stay musically viable, when he's on the job site, he's compulsive about protecting his hands.

MASEFIELD: I wear gloves all the time when I'm working. Sometimes, like going to the bank or something, and saying, yeah, this is on my business account. I'm a stone mason. And sometimes I walk away thinking, that guy didn't believe me. He doesn't think I'm a stone mason.

EVANCIE: Because your hands are too soft?

MASEFIELD: My hands are too soft because I'm wearing these gloves all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MANDOLIN PROJECT SONG)

JON FISHMAN: You know, he puts himself into whatever it is he's doing pretty sincerely.

EVANCIE: Jon Fishman is the drummer with the band Phish. He's been playing with Masefield off and on since they were in college. From the beginning, Fishman says he recognized a kindred spirit.

FISHMAN: Jamie was one of those people like, oh, this guy's, you know, he's pretty dedicated. This is another human who's - it's not just a hobby for. And to be perfectly honest, when he started to go down the stone building route, I actually was a little jealous.

EVANCIE: It's tempting to think that Masefield inhabits two totally different creative worlds. But he says jazz and masonry have something fundamental in common.

MASEFIELD: In jazz we have a phrase called playing changes. When we're playing changes, we're soloing over those harmonic changes in that particular tune. And so you are very quickly making decisions about what you're going to play. And so when I'm doing stone work, I often feel like we're in the midst of playing changes because every stone you place needs some consideration, but you can't dwell on it all day long.

EVANCIE: Like improvisation. But there's also the pursuit of timelessness.

MASEFIELD: At the end of every day of doing stone work, I can look back and say - hopefully say - that looks good, and that's what we've done today, and that's going to last a really long time. And it's similar in music. If you're lucky enough to play some great music one day, you can look back and say, well, we've got that. That's recorded, or the audience has heard that. Hopefully that's had an effect on them in some way that they're taking home with them.

EVANCIE: The task is monumental, so to speak. Make something for this moment. Make something for the ages - for everyone. How many of us are trying to do that? For NPR News, I'm Angela Evancie.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MANDOLIN PROJECT SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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