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Mamma’s Marmalade: Pioneer Valley “Potato Jazz”

Erica Weiss and Luis Feldman

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Despite having no percussion to their arsenal of instruments, Pioneer Valley musical quintet Mamma’s Marmalade still strives to create a unique sound.

Born in Herter Hall through the UMass Association for Musical Performance group, Mamma’s Marmalade started out as a casual cover band that performed songs from Grateful Dead and Phish.

The band was founded by mandolinist Mitch Bordage and banjo player Rich Hennessy. They would later acquire fiddler Lily Sexton, bassist Maura Hennessy, who is also the sister of Rich Hennessy, and guitarist Ben Bosco to fill the roster.

Self-described as “potato jazz,” the band prefers to maintain a broader musical style that has very earthy roots, much like the spudded vegetable. However, they still have jazzy elements because of their live improvisation, jazz-influenced chords, and bluegrass elements.

“We’re as refined as jazz, yet as simple as a potato,” Sexton said when asked to describe the band. “We bring a lot of outside influence and training.”

Bosco describes Mamma’s Marmalade’s musical creativity as, “throwing things to the wall and seeing what sticks,” citing their covers of traditional bluegrass folk and Jimi Hendrix songs as proof.

Although the band does not want to be labeled as a stereotypical folk band, they have noticed that their fans still find a lot of bluegrass influences in their music.

“People have described us as ‘bluegrass,’ ‘newgrass’… and as one of my friends affectionately calls it, ‘bluegrass monkeyjunk,’” said Bosco, explaining that “monkeyjunk” references how the band likes to fool around with their sound in rehearsal and onstage.

This attitude towards their sound has affected every aspect of the band’s image, even down to its name. Originally the Turtle Melon String Band, Mamma’s Marmalade attributes their name to their friend George Condon commenting on how often the band jams and manipulates songs to create their own unique sound.

“[Condon] said, ‘You all jam so much, why don’t you just call yourself Mamma’s Marmalade?” said Bosco commenting on the jam-marmalade wordplay.

Their live performances will be sure to put a pep in your step. According to Rich Hennessy, he enjoys the fluid motion of their music.

“With [songs] ‘Not Fade Away’ and ‘Possum,’ transitions tend to be more naturally improvisational. We try to plan it out a little bit, but I like the idea of the music being somewhat free flowing,” he said.

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On April 10, Mamma’s Marmalade is set to release their new EP “Some Better Company.” According to Bosco, the most interesting fact about this EP is that it only took six hours to record.

Former New Rhythm and Blues Quartet (NRBQ) member Johnny Spampinato became an important ally during the recording process for “Some Better Company” after Spampinato managed to connect Mamma’s Marmalade with producers and helped them get studio time.

“He liked the fact that we thought outside of the box,” Bosco said. “It’s not about the instruments, it’s about the notes that can come from them.”

However, the fast recording process did not come without challenges. According to Bosco, the biggest struggle of recording was doing all of the vocal tracks without playing their instruments.

“It’s just easier to sing with your instrument because then you feel the notes vibrate through your body,” Bosco said. That was how he is able to stay on pitch when performing live. He also noted that the boys of the band seem to struggle more with singing unaccompanied compared to the girls.

To add to those struggles, the band still has a lot of challenges to deal with in regular performing seasons. Like any musical group, trying to get their music heard and trying to book shows is a difficult endeavor. For example, bass player Maura Hennessy graduated from Anna Maria College last year and now has a job as a teacher in Marshfield, Mass. The commitment to the band became a major challenge for live gigs.

“There are many times I show up to a gig or a recording session, and the band has a bunch of new material they’ve been working on, and I’ve got to learn it all on the spot,” Hennessy said, laughing off the challenge of learning new material within minutes, adding that being a quick learner is part of the fun.

Described as the musical “bus driver” for the band, Maura is specifically essential to the band’s overall performance. The all-string group must rely on her bass and timing to make sure that their sound has cohesion. Her driving bass keeps the band together in performances that are filled heavily with interchanging solos and vocals.

With production of “Some Better Company” complete, Mamma’s Marmalade will be performing throughout Eastern and Central Mass. On April 11, they will perform at Club Passim in Boston for the “Down Home Up Here” blugrass festival, and on April 18, they will be featured at “Extravaganja 2015,” which is held at the Amherst Center.

Despite the live performance schedule, Bosco promises that another album is in the works.

“We do want to keep building up a fan base out here,” Bosco said.

Be sure to check out Mamma’s Marmalade on SoundCloud!

Erica Weiss can be reached at [email protected]
Luis Fieldman can be reached at [email protected]

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Mamma’s Marmalade: Pioneer Valley “Potato Jazz”