Jacob Joliff

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Jacob Jolliff

by Kara M. Bachman

Today, it’s difficult to believe that Jacob Jolliff once struggled with the mandolin. It wasn’t yet a fire in his belly; it was a required task—a responsibility.

“Me and my siblings were homeschooled,” Jolliff explained, “and we started an instrument as part of our schoolwork, you could say. I was going through the motions the first six months.”

Then, something kind of clicked.

“I was maybe eight or so when that happened,” he said. “When you get affirmation for something as a kid, there’s a tendency to kinda lean into it.”

Today, the mandolin is what shapes Jolliff’s life. It’s his thing. Not only is he releasing his second album, but he’s touring this summer with one of the musicians he respects and who has influenced his solo music.

“This summer, the most important thing is touring with Bela Fleck,” Jolliff said. “I kinda fit my band in around that.”

Jolliff’s new record – eponymously titled “The Jacob Jolliff Band” – is an August release featuring 11 tracks. It’s his second record, following 2018’s “Instrumentals Vol. 1.”

“I think it’s a little bit different conceptually,” he said. “2018 was all instrumental, all original. This [new one] has like four instrumentals that are originals.”

“We do a lot of complex instrumental music…but we definitely cut it with some traditional bluegrass, a few covers,” he added. “It’s a good representation of the live show that my band puts on.”

Jolliff – 2012 winner of the National Mandolin Championship in Winfield, Kansas – said his music “has a lot of organized technical parts, but plenty of space for people [the other musicians] to kinda stretch out.”

Jolliff said his favorite mandolin players are stylistic inspirations for his compositions. He often emulates their work and adds his spin or interpretation – his unique signature – to everything he does. 

“Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, David Grisman…always in the back of my mind is the kind of stuff they’ve done,” he said. 

“I’ve played a lot of jazz, and also I’m into a lot of jazz artists,” he added. “They influence a lot of the music I write.” He mentioned two greats, legendary jazz saxophonists John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.

Jolliff hails from just south of Portland, Oregon, but since 2014 has lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. Before that, he lived and performed from 2007 to 2014 in Boston, Mass., where he attended the renowned Berklee College of Music. From 2008 to 2014, Jolliff was a member of the roots band Joy Kills Sorrow, which toured extensively throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Following that, he logged a five-year stint with Yonder Mountain String Band. Today, the Jacob Jolliff Band is his main focus and vehicle for his original music.

Jolliff is a busy guy who does between 45 and 60 gigs a year. He likes it that way and enjoys going from supporting Bela Fleck; to doing his own thing; to everything in between.

“I like to tour in duos, with my own band, as a side band,” he said. “I like to keep my plate full. I really like it all.”

When asked where he sees himself in the future, Jolliff sounds driven to make a few more dreams come true. Although he wouldn’t name names, he’s got a list of people he still hasn’t worked with.

“I would like at some point to collaborate with some of my jazz heroes,” he said. “A couple of epic jazz musicians that I look up to.”

He said he’d also like to go back and do another record solely consisting of new work.

“I would like a Vol. 2 of all originals,” he said.

While Jolliff enjoys jazz, Celtic, and other forms, his heart lies in bluegrass.

“I love the bluegrass community,” he said. “I have a really awesome community of musicians I’ve known for a long time.” He said he loves going to bluegrass festivals and that “some of the best times are the festivals, where I get to see everybody.” Another thing he loves about the community is the jamming scene at festivals. “I grew up partaking in all of that. The best people will play with amateurs, which can be fun for everybody,” he added. “It has this great sort of egalitarian vibe to it.”