• New Sounds by the Young Man from Yonder Mountain

    Jacob Jolliff
    Photo credit: J. Scott Shrader.

    Ten minutes a day. Every day.

    That's all Jacob Jolliff's father asked.

    But that simple demand set the young Oregon native off on a life journey filled with good practices. Not metaphorically, but literally. Even now, as a top level professional making a handsome living with his mandolin, Jolliff still routinely practices many hours a day and that's on top of gigging, teaching, writing, recording, and less important things like sleeping or taking in calories.

    Jolliff, like many phenoms, started out in a family band, in his case a gospel-based duo with his dad, Bill.

    But, as Berklee's first full-scholarship mandolin student, the wider world initially heard of Jolliff through the modern string band Joy Kills Sorrow, which had its roots at the school. Jolliff, a sophomore at the time, took over for Joe Walsh when the latter was recruited by the Gibson Brothers, and immediately staked his turf with Sam Bush-like rhythmic scratches and a bright, tight facility with original breaks.

    Joy Kills Sorrow had a certain Boston gentility. The group, which also sent bassist Bridget Kearney on to Lake Street Dive, developed a strong following, but Jolliff's next gig not only raised his profile, it also gave him plenty of room to stretch out.

    With jamgrass kingpins Yonder Mountain String Band, Jolliff found an outlet that allowed him to employ his battery of bluegrass licks; reference genre-bending pioneers like Bush and David Grisman; and step into the flow of current trailblazers like Walsh, Sierra Hull and Chris Thile.

    The constraints of bluegrass are falling away for players like Jolliff, who aced the 2012 National Mandolin Championship at Walnut Valley. Today, he is as likely to be transcribing a saxophone solo as he is to be copping Bill Monroe licks.

    And with the release of his debut solo album, Instrumentals, Vol. 1, Jolliff is quickly establishing himself as a composer of note.

    Almost as a statement, he starts the record strumming, not picking; giving plenty of space to Alex Hargreaves' fiddle and Stash Wyslouch's guitar as all wend their way into "Storming Heaven (Tune for William Gerald)." When Jolliff does kick in, it's with the deftness that has made his name, tracing the fretboard with ease and adventure.

    He namechecks Berklee's famed mandolin teacher John McGann with the winkingly-titled "McGann Naps at Winfield," and jazz guitarist Lee Dynes with "Dirty Dynes," but Jolliff's playing on the record is beholden to no one. And while his work with Yonder Mountain is not only freeform, but often long form, Instrumentals is marked, for the most part, by concision and smart arrangements that pass the melody around to all players.

    Jolliff will — while balancing Yonder Mountain gigs, playing pickup shows at Manhattan's Rockwood Music Hall, teaching privately and on Tunefox, and taking lessons himself with Dynes — tour behind the record, noting that Jacob Jolliff Band shows will highlight the new tunes, but also be much-more vocal-oriented. "I don't always like the sound of my singing," he laughs, "but I like hearing Alex and Stash play over vocal music."

    As for sleeping, well, he'll be busy practicing.

    Michael EckAbout the author: Roots scholar and multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck is a respected songwriter; a nationally exhibited painter; and an award-winning cultural critic and freelance writer. He is also a member of Ramblin Jug Stompers, Lost Radio Rounders, Berkshire Ramblers and Good Things.

    You take Skype lessons with jazz guitarist Lee Dynes. How does that apply to mandolin?

    Lee, who lives out in San Francisco, is one of my best friends. We played a lot of music together in college, and he's got a real breadth of knowledge about jazz. If you ask him to, he can play in the style of basically every decade. We definitely work more on the idiomatic and theoretical side of instruction versus technical specifics. There are some techniques that are common between the mandolin and guitar, obviously, but a lot of my studies with him have to do with phrasing and timing and things like that, which transcend any specific instrument.

    And are there any specific jazz mandolinists that you listen to?

    I mostly listen to horn players and piano players. Not to say there aren't some guys that have made great strides in jazz mandolin, I'm just really trying to immerse myself in the giants of the genre. I have transcribed piano players in the past, but lately, it's been a lot of Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis.

    Below: The Jacob Jolliff Band: L-R, Alex Hargreaves, Jacob, Myles Sloniker, and Stash Wyslouch.

    Jacob Jolliff Band
    Photo credit: Luke Leasure.

    Can you talk about the limitations of the mandolin, and how you've been able to turn those into strengths.

    In the post-Thile mandolin world, the limitations aren't quite as great as they once seemed. Chris has obviously blown the doors off in terms of what's possible technically on the mandolin. But there are issues, the inability to sustain a note, for example. That's something that I'm always struggling with, especially when I'm playing over jazz tunes or funkier stuff, which I have to do with Yonder sometimes. Grisman has done a lot to change the way in which the mandolin can be used because his phrasing is so eloquent and horn-like. He actually does get a good deal of sustain out of the mandolin versus the way it's normally played. Because of that lack of sustain, the instrument can lend itself to John Coltrane sheets-of-sound type of play, in terms of flurries of notes, which I work on. These days, I'm trying to make it so that if I do that, I'm actually playing something harmonically meaningful, not just a lot of notes.

    To riff on your phrase, it's an increasingly post-Monroe world. Do you agree?

    I've been teaching a lot and I do tend to start people off with bluegrass, because, in terms of the mandolin's existence in America, most of the greats have come up within bluegrass. Even the guys that have gone on to do a lot of other stuff like Grisman and Thile have mostly started in bluegrass. It's a great place to get grounded. Like a horn player that's never studied Charlie Parker or a violinist that's never played any Bach, a mandolinist that's never played any bluegrass will have some of the same shortcomings. It's sort of sounds strange if that element is totally absent from someone's playing.

    Below: Yonder Mountain String Band performing at The Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD.

    Yonder Mountain String Band

    Joy Kills Sorrow had a very specific sound.

    We were very influenced by Punch Brothers and Crooked Still. Everything was arranged, with prescribed parts for everybody. It was a nice formula, which I liked. We were able to develop our own groove, with the bass doing something that wasn't just I-V. It gave me a lot of room to do interesting rhythm parts on the mandolin, sort of faux drum parts. It evolved into something really cool, but unfortunately it didn't evolve into something that could make money. But it was a pleasure being in that band, and I still have really fond memories associated with all of it.

    Practice, almost at a spiritual level, has become part of the Jacob Jolliff story.

    Absolutely. It's definitely a big part of who I am, and the older I get the more I appreciate the time spent doing it. Like if I spend two hours practicing, I enjoy it and it gets me in a certain headspace, which persists even when I stop playing. Some people go for a run every day, or do something else that gets them in a zone that nothing else will. That's definitely what practicing is for me. When I was younger, I probably had more trouble enjoying it for what it was, and felt a little bit more of a panicked rush to get better. Now, I really try to keep the focus on the practice itself and not worry too much about seeing results immediately. If I have the option on tour, I like to practice for a few hours early in the day and then case up my instrument for a few hours before going on stage. The closer I am to showtime, the harder it is to get in a good practice zone, because I have other things pulling at me.

    I feel like a lot of my practicing is motivated by trying to keep up with my peers. I'm lucky to be surrounded by people that are so amazing all the time, and live with people that are amazing, too. With my group, for example, I'm the weakest link in the band. And that, to me, is a huge motivator. I feel really lucky to be around people that make me aware those levels of excellence even exist.

    Can you offer a few practice tips?

    One piece of pragmatic advice is that I always practice standing up. I feel like it's more comfortable when you get used to it, and it more accurately simulates a performance setting. And try to find an amount of time that you can do each day and that you can be disciplined about doing each day, as opposed to sort of trying to cram in big amounts of time once or twice a week. I think that's huge. Keeping a practice journal can be helpful for that.

    How much of the heart of playing mandolin lies in the right hand?

    That's something I get asked about a lot, but I think the left hand is just as important. In some ways, the right hand is more counter-intuitive, which is odd, because, to the layman and maybe to the beginner, the right hand looks easier. But it seems to be the thing that mystifies people, including myself. It's something I work on a lot. With my favorite players Ronnie McCoury, Grisman, Thile a lot of what you hear is the right hand, in that it's very distinct. Before Thile, playing really crazy or complicated harmonic stuff in the left hand maybe wasn't on people's radar as much, so for some trad mandolin playing, the right hand might be the harder part. But once you get into playing horn solos and Bach and shit like that, the left hand is just as hard.

    Below: Jacob, Del McCoury and Ronnie McCoury at Northwest String Summit in North Plains.

    Jacob, Del McCoury and Ronnie McCoury at Northwest String Summit in North Plains.

    Yonder Mountain seems like a unique proposition for a mandolinist.

    It affords an incredible amount of space for me to do what I do, including unaccompanied multiple-minute mandolin cadenzas. The open-ended soloing was a real challenge at first, and it still is, in terms of keeping it interesting with long lines over just a couple of chords. But it really gives me a good situation when it comes to superimposing ideas, to try some of the stuff that I work on in the practice room. There's just a lot of freedom. It's not like I get a 20 second solo every 10 minutes or something, it's like a solo in every song and a really long solo on some. So I get to do a lot of playing, for sure.

    Instrumentals Vol. I

    Instrumentals, Vol. 1, Jacob's all instrumental album released in 2018.

    Jacob Jolliff - Instrumentals, Vol. 1


    The track "Sheerson Crosses the Rocky Mountains" from Instrumentals, Vol. I.

    What is the difference between your role in Yonder, and say, Joy Kills Sorrow, when you're not soloing?

    For a lot of Yonder's tunes, I'm doing more of traditional chopping and strumming than I was in Joy Kills Sorrow. In Joy, once in a while I'd do a bluegrass chop, but usually I was playing some sort of Sam Bush-influenced half-time chop or a specific part. In Yonder, it's a lot more straight bluegrass rhythm playing to be honest. Sometimes we play at 160 bpm for like 20 minutes and then I have to take a solo, so it can be grueling. In some ways, it's why I was a good fit for it, because I'd been training to do that for a long time.

    Tell us about the process of composing Instrumentals, Vol. 1?

    Composing is something that takes a lot more discipline for me. I'll procrastinate on it, even for writing that record. I don't feel like I'm a very accomplished composer. I think the same things apply to it that apply to practicing, where it's about carving out the time and making yourself do it. Beyond that, I should definitely be more well-studied in counter point. I plan to work on it more in the future. But for me, I was trying to write an album in the vein of Grisman and Thile records, or John Reischman, who've done all instrumental bluegrass records. I did a lot of listening to records like that.

    Below: Jacob and Alex Hargreaves performing circa 2008.

    You're from Oregon, why New York?

    New York just always has a pull for young artists, because it's a mecca. There's an amazing bluegrass scene here. Alex (Hargreaves) is my roommate and so is Mike Robinson, who is an amazing multi-instrumentalist. Michael Daves is here. He's been a pillar of the New York scene for a while and we play with him all the time. Tony Trischka, too. There's no other city like it. I love New York no plans to move.

    Below: Jacob performing at The Telluride Bluegrass Festival with Yonder Mountain String Band, Sam Bush and Ronnie McCoury.

    Jacob Jolliff at Tellurie Bluegrass Festival with Ronnie McCoury and Sam Bush

    What he plays

    In November 2017, Jolliff acquired an X-braced Gilchrist F-5. With that, the Gibson Sam Bush model he'd been playing since 2008 went into its case, where it remains. The Gilchrist is strung, as always, with D'Addario EJ-75s, and is amplified via a Fishman M-200 pickup through a Grace Design FELiX preamp. Jolliff uses a Blue Chip CT-55 pick.

    Below: Jacob's contribution to David Benedict's Mandolin Mondays , playing "Darn That Dream" on his Gilchrist F-5 mandolin.

    Additional Information

    Below: Jacob Jolliff at age 8.

    Jacob Jolliff at age 8

    Below: poster from the 2005 Mandofest, a weekend concert and workshop series sponsored by the Mandolin Cafe in Lawrence, Kansas. Appearance by the Jacob Jolliff Trio that consisted of Jacob on mandolin, Alex Hargreaves on fiddle and mandolin, Ken Cartwright on bass. Poster design: Annie Tichenor.

    2005 Mandofest, Lawrence, Kansas
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. Fultoncreek's Avatar
      Fultoncreek -
      Nicely written overview and and good interview. Thanks.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Brief story about Jacob.

      Early 2005 I'm promoting a weekend concert, mandolin workshops, mandolin tasting recordings, general mandolin hang, etc. in Lawrence, KS we called Mandofest that ran for 13 years. Get an email from the "MandoMedic" Ken Cartwright in Washington state, tells me, "hey, there are two kids up here that are really good and they should be on the concert." I told him, Ken, there's no way with this tiny budget I can afford travel expenses, etc. He says, "if we show up can you put us on the bill?" Ken plays bass for them and they were young enough they needed a chaperone. Sure, I say. They show up and yes, they are quite fine, indeed. The two: Jacob Jolliff and Alex Hargreaves, both eventually awarded full scholarships to Berklee College of Music, graduate, and are now two of the hottest up and coming musicians in acoustic music and still performing together.

      Fast forward to October 2018: I've been watching Jacob's career for awhile and wanting to interview him, sort of kicking myself for not doing so. I'm in Brooklyn on the R train early afternoon headed for a world class slice of pizza--I engage in food tourism in Queens mostly, 2-3 times a year. Train stops in south Brooklyn, guy gets on and I see a Calton Case and the trademark man bun. Holy crap, it's Jacob! I go over and introduce myself and we chat for 6-7 stops and make plans for this article before we arrive at my exit.

      Chances of my running into a mandolin player on a subway in NYC area? Rare, but not the first time for me.
    1. dang's Avatar
      dang -
      I’ve seen Jake play with Yonder Mountain String Band many times now - and somehow he keeps getting better. His style has progressed in to a machine gun arpeggio of mandolin bliss. I would say YMSB isn’t for traditionalists, but they have always had a strong emphasis in jamming that is a great match for Jake’s talent.
    1. ccravens's Avatar
      ccravens -
      Awesome interview, and "Lost" was great!

      Awesome NYC subway story to boot.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Jacob just announced his departure from Yonder Mountain String Band at the end of the year. Will be interesting to see who goes into that spot.
    1. Chris Gray's Avatar
      Chris Gray -
      They reported Nick Piccininni on their Instagram
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this interview.