Picking the banjo
At the age of 16, just when he was becoming serious about playing music, Jayme Stone discovered what he thought of as “roots” music: “Everything from Pete Seeger to Earl Scruggs to Béla Fleck,” said the Toronto native.More recently, Stone, now 28 and a resident of Boulder, has been discovering what’s underneath those roots. Earlier this year, he spent two months in the west African country of Mali to trace back the lineage of his instrument, the banjo.”I went there to fill in the gaps,” said Stone, who brings his Jayme Stone Quartet to Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale on Friday, June 1. “There are a lot of people in the U.S. researching what early African-American slaves’ music sounded like. But I went all the way back, to learn thousand-year-old repertoire, see some instruments that are close relatives of the banjo.”Stone examined the ngoni, a lutelike, plucked instrument that originated in Mali, and the akonting, a three-stringed instrument from Senegal. He also got to hear, and join in playing the rhythms, patterns and sounds that led to American blues, jazz and ultimately rock ‘n’ roll.”There are amazing traditions of that music dating back before the 12th century,” said Stone. “To me, that’s the old-time music. Or the old-old-time music. In that repertoire, you can hear so much of the blues and other American roots music.”Stone returned to the States with something more than observations on the instruments and sounds of west Africa. There was also the bigger picture of how music was used, what role it played in the lives of Malians, how it connected people.”There’s a whole idea of community that is unique to west Africa,” he said, “a real sense of participation. Even though there’s an enormous influence here of west African music, there’s that whole aspect that didn’t make it over here. More than the notes.”I’d go to somebody’s house and the whole family, maybe 22 brothers, would all be playing the same instrument. It’s fascinating to see that social fabric. Everybody knows the music, people sing along, the children climb on the instruments.”Returning to North America, Stone saw more clearly how music is not quite so integral to community life here. “These days, especially in our culture, there are people who can make music, who play on a stage, and those who can’t,” he said. “There, it’s more of a village feel.”
It was at 16 that Stone picked up the banjo. Not coincidentally, it was also then that he determined that he would be among those making the music, and not just listening to it. Till then, Stone had been a semi-serious guitar player; the banjo brought him over the cusp from casual picker to ambitious musician.Stone puts his finger on a number of factors that prompted him to take on the banjo with such devotion. For one, there was the plinking, metallic tone, and the way those sounds came forth: “those cascading crackles of notes,” as he put it. He also loved its counterintuitive oddities – that the lowest and highest pitched strings are next to each other, for example. And the banjo seemed like the promise of a new world, of uncharted territory.”Whereas with the guitar, it was overwhelming to think of all that had been done,” said Stone. “With banjo, I’d wake up every day and say, ‘Hey, there’s so much to be done.'”For some musicians, their instrument is the antidote to their personality. For others, it’s a perfect fit for their personality. I’m probably the latter.”Part of that sense of wide-open space to explore came from how Stone happened upon the music all at once. “I discovered the whole gamut of roots music all at once,” he said. “I learned modern and old music, and that influenced what I do now. It was all part of the same thing to me, all available to me.”Stone has spent the last 12 years taking the utmost advantage of those openings. With grants from the cultural arm of the Canadian government (“I love Canada,” says Stone when he brings this up), he would take one-day trips to New Jersey to study with Tony Trischka, a pioneer who explored the potential of the banjo in fusion and rock settings. Those occasions “were like my dream come true. He was my hero, my favorite banjo player,” said Stone.He also spent time with Béla Fleck who, like Stone, is a former student of Trischka’s. Stone calls Fleck a “more reticent teacher” than Trischka; Stone had to track down Fleck for hour-long sessions backstage, after concerts.”At the time I was really fired-up, learning music off his and Tony’s latest records,” said Stone of his ability to track down the two living banjo legends. “I guess I was just persistent enough.”Virtually all of Stone’s education has come in such self-driven dribs and drabs. In 2003, he attended the Banff School of the Arts in Alberta, Canada. The school was directed by jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, and Stone’s band at the time, the Toronto-based Tricycle, had instruction sessions from jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.”I looked around and saw I was the only banjo player, the only one who couldn’t read music, and the only one who hadn’t gone to music school,” he said. Still, the formal structure of jazz is evident on “The Utmost,” the new CD that is the first released under Stone’s own name. “I’ve always done my homework,” he explained. “I’ve spent a lot of time around jazz musicians, jamming with them, studying their charts, and having them correct my technique. So I’ve studied jazz organically. I don’t play standards, but I hope the inventiveness and spirit of that music comes across.”
At this point, a formal jazz education would seem like an unnecessary limitation on Stone’s creativity. “The Utmost” – which, like nearly everything Stone plays, is almost all original compositions – has a recognizable jazz core, especially in the passages that feature trumpet and English horn.But Stone is drawing on more than jazz – and more than bluegrass, and even more than music – for his inspiration. An avid reader, especially of poetry, and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, Stone is influenced by literature, philosophy and foreign cultures. The foot-tapping tune “Garuda” is named after a mythical bird from India, said to be made entirely of rhythm. “An Apple in the Dark” was inspired by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector; the title track by a poem by an eighth-century Zen teacher.”I tend to get influenced by a lot of things that aren’t necessarily music,” said Stone, the son of an architect and a schoolteacher, neither of them particularly artistic. “Sometimes I think I could have been a writer or make films. I can feel at odds with musicians, because what’s driving me isn’t always listening to records or playing music.”
Maybe the biggest influence Stone is looking for doesn’t come from a record or a book, but simply from human interaction. Four years ago, he was urged by a friend to spend time with a Malian kora player who was visiting Canada. Stone’s French was shaky; the African’s English was practically nonexistent – so the two spent three days making music.”The whole thing just rocked my world,” he said. “It was so challenging. Rhythmically, I was often lost. But what stuck out was the eye contact. The heart-to-heart connection was so important. And I thought it was rare here.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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