Innovating a rich music revival – banjoist Jayme Stone
Musician Jayme Stone. (photo from Jayme Stone)
Jayme Stone calls himself a banjoist, instigator and composer. His repertoire, which includes four albums – The Utmost (2007), Africa to Appalachia (2008), Room of Wonders (2010) and The Other Side of the Air (2013) – bridge myriad genres, including folk and roots music from around the world, jazz and chamber music. His latest endeavor is the Lomax Project, which he brings here for CelticFest Vancouver next weekend.
Music journalists have said that Stone’s music “sounds like nothing else on earth,” is “spirited,” “enchanting,” “adventurous” and “delicate, imaginative and unusual.” To get a true sense of what Stone is capable, however, and what his oeuvre sounds like, it might help to know more about from where he comes than to where he’s going.
More associated in North American ears with the sounds of Appalachia and bluegrass, the banjo also has a significant presence in traditional American folk and roots music, including country, blues and old-time. However, what we know of as the modern banjo has a longer – and more global – story to tell.
“Predecessors of the banjo and the blueprint for making and playing it came over with slaves from West Africa starting in the 1500s,” Stone told the Independent in an email interview. “It was, and continues to be, part of many African-American traditions, and African influence abounds in all forms of American music, including the blues, jazz, rock and roll and the many roots and branches of traditional music. From my perspective, each of these genres tells a unique story of how immigrant culture from the British Isles and Europe combined with African culture in a different way. The history of the banjo tells a similar story.”
Growing up in Toronto, Stone developed a love for music early but didn’t start playing banjo until his teens. “I was born and raised in Toronto but started playing the banjo at 16 when I moved to Vancouver for a spell. My parents had a good record collection growing up and my uncle Ian loved listening to music and played a little piano. We used to listen to old records with rapt attention, and he was the first person to turn me on to poetry, Eastern philosophy and ’60s culture.” Most significantly, perhaps, delving into those records introduced Stone to the inherent possibilities of his chosen instrument.
“I discovered the banjo at precisely the moment I got serious about studying music,” he said. “I had started playing country blues guitar having fallen in love with folks like Elizabeth Cotten, Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis. At that time, you could mail order cassettes of out-of-print recordings from the Smithsonian Folkways catalogue and I reveled in the discovery of these older artists and avidly read liner notes. In a short span, I heard the banjo in many settings, from southern old-time Appalachian music to Mike Seeger to Earl Scruggs to modern pioneers like Tony Trischka ad Béla Fleck.
“Béla came to play at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver and it turned my world upside down. I immediately wanted to play the banjo, but I also realized that you could play any kind of music on the instrument. It was thrilling to see both what a varied history the banjo had and how much music had yet to be played on the instrument. I loved the quirky physics of the tuning, its unique timbre and variety of playing styles. I’ve been hooked ever since!”
Stone’s musical lens is global and multidisciplinary in scope, as he explores songwriting and storytelling traditions from around the world. Bringing all the pieces together is a labor of love. “I’ve long been interested in music from around the world and like immersing myself in different approaches to making music,” he said. “I love the interaction and improvisational spirit of jazz; the clarity of melody and grit of folk music; the attention to detail and color in chamber music; the rhythmic variety of music from foreign cultures. It’s often these core elements that attract me, rather than simply the veneer of style, if that makes any sense. In a way, I like to bring different approaches into my own musical culture and sort of curate my own esthetic world, as if it were an art gallery with all different kinds of art hanging on the walls.”
His reputation for innovation, reinvention and collaboration stems from his role as an instigator. “At bottom, I really just love being engaged in listening to and learning about music. Since I sometimes hear things that don’t exist yet or have an inkling to combine things that aren’t obvious, I have to make that music so it exists in the world. Along the way, I’ve performed, made records, produced them for others and taught – it’s really all a natural extension of my passion for music and interest in sharing it with others. It’s often necessary for independent musicians like myself to wear many hats. I started using the word ‘instigator’ because I often kickstart and head up projects and collaborations. I’ve always been an upstart of sorts.”
Indeed, frequent collaboration has been integral to Stone’s career. Each album and project has been a shared effort, as they take listeners from the banjo’s roots in West Africa, to the music of Bach and Debussy, and along the Cinnamon Route through Persia and India and beyond.
“I really love collaborating,” Stone noted. “It includes so many things I enjoy: learning, sharing, creating, friendship and community. I also like working with musicians that have their own voice and sensibility – often people that play their instruments in unique ways. It just makes sense to collaborate because I could never write music that fully allows them express their personalities and idiosyncrasies. By collaborating, I get to draw on people’s uniqueness while also working it into a context that includes my own voice and approach. I have to be very organized, plan ahead and work with people who I trust. I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’m pretty used to balancing all the elements and rolling with things when they go awry.”
Stone’s Lomax Project is named after Alan Lomax, the famed field collector of American folk and roots music, an ethnomusicological treasure trove, much of which is archived at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Centre. Lomax is also well known for having produced radio and live concerts, as well as for his academic contributions and political activism, among other roles. It is fitting that Stone would pay homage to the multitalented and versatile Lomax, whose work was cross-genre, global and truly multicultural.
“Alan Lomax was a folklorist who began accompanying his father, John Lomax, on field recording trips through the American South in the early 1930s when portable recording technology first became available,” Stone explained. “They collected folk songs from people on plantations, penitentiaries, front porches, churches and schoolyards in the hopes of capturing traditional, rural, folk songs from people who made music for their own enjoyment rather than for commercial gain. Alan made field-collecting trips all over America and eventually all over the world for 60-plus years and recorded over 50,000 songs, in addition to taking photographs, making films and writing prolifically about traditional music. He was an incredibly strong-minded, dedicated and prolific cultural force.
“The idea of my project is to unearth songs that Alan collected and collaborate with some of my favorite musicians on new arrangements. We’ll recycle, re-imagine and rework these old melodies and lyrics and try to bring new life to the material.”
The artists with whom Stone will perform in Vancouver include multi-instrumentalist Eli West, fiddler Crittany Haas, singer and composer Moira Smiley and double bassist Joe Phillips. Other Lomax Project artists have included Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Margaret Glaspy, Greg Garrison, Julian Lage, and Pharis and Jason Romero.
Stone’s own cultural background is Jewish. “I am Jewish or, as I prefer to say, Jew-ish. My family on both sides are Jewish, and I grew up going to Hebrew school, synagogue, having a bar mitzvah and all that. It’s not something I kept up with in my adult life, and I looked more to Buddhist and yoga traditions in my late teens. Since having kids, my wife and I have been slowly coming around to incorporating more Jewish traditions back into our lives. We try to do Shabbat dinner every week and get together for some holidays with other like-minded, somewhat-on-the-fence, modern Jewish families and friends. I can’t say being Jewish has influenced my music per se, but it’s of course one of the many things that has shaped who I am.”
Finding the time to unwind might be difficult, but Stone has a rich life outside of music, too. “When I’m not working on music, I’m spending time with my family. I have an almost-four-year-old girl and a 10-week-old boy, so life is full. When I do find time to unwind, I like to practise yoga, do contact improv dance, read and hang out with friends. I love to cook and we usually make a big deal about meals at home.”
After CelticFest, Stone will play a concert at the Bach Music Festival of Canada with his Other Side of the Air collaborators. The concert will feature the quintet “playing a Bach fugue, a Trinidadian calypso, Bulgarian mountain dance and an Appalachian barnburner.”
And next on the list for Stone? “I’ll be recording the Lomax Project over the next year and an album will be out in the spring of 2015. It’ll include Grammy-winning songster Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Margaret Glaspy, Moira Smiley, Eli West, Julian Lage, Greg Garrison, Joe Phillips and others. We’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign in the spring to fund the recording.”
Jayme Stone brings his Lomax Project to CelticFest Vancouver on March 14, 8 p.m., at the Vogue; March 15, 8 p.m., at Vancouver FanClub; March 16, 2 p.m., at Mahony and Sons Music Stage (Granville at Robson); and March 15, noon-4 p.m., at the Tom Lee Music City Stage (929 Granville St.) for a series of one-hour workshops with Lomax Project artists. For tickets and information, visit celticfestvancouver.com.