Primary Instrument: Banjo
Banjo-playing composer Jayme Stone follows whimsy rigorously. He picked up a passion for music from an eccentric uncle who listened to records endlessly, placing his ashtray on the speaker so Stone could join him in watching how the cigarette smoke swirled to the music. Stone muses that he started playing banjo because the instruments' quirky physics align with his quick thinking. Soon after his calling to the banjo, he followed the sound of an Indian sarod (like a whisp of smoke) in a small California town to a chance meeting with revered Indian musician Ali Akbar Khan. I spent the better part of the week soaking up these ancient songs, remembers Stone. You could say it was my first banjo lesson. Stone's musical path always finds him with one foot sinking deeper into land close to home while the other wanders onto new territory.
An unlikely set of circumstances has lent Stone a broader set of reference points than most banjoists and those early beginnings have influenced his sound, choice of material, and collaborations. It started with the architecture of the banjo, led to a mysterious librarian who stocked his local public library with a vast trove of banjo recordings, and landed him long-lasting lessons with a series of maestros, from Béla Fleck and Tony Trischka, to Dave Douglas and Bill Frisell. Now, after seven weeks in Mali studying with the likes of Djelimady Sissoko, Adama Tounkara and Bassekou Kouyate, he realizes that old-fashioned oral transmission suits him best.
There's just something special about one-on-one learning, says Stone. There's more to music than just the notes. Like seeing a photo of Miles Davis in Tony Trischka's banjo case and playing 'Cluck Old Hen' with Bill Frisell stand out more than anything else I learned somehow.
Stone is drawn to musicians who invent their own worlds, musicians who are fluent in the language of music, yet speak in broader brush strokes. With such unlikely influences as Japanese poetry and Brazilian literature, Stone even composed what he calls a tiny symphony that takes place inside an imaginary light bulb. He owns over twenty Caetano Veloso records and has been known to sing Veloso songs phonetically (without knowing a lick of Portuguese). Just as his early influences were diverse, so continues the sources of inspiration.
The Jayme Stone Quartet has the uncanny ability to play a twelve-part composition in eleven, a dirge for Ray Charles, and a medley of Appalachian fiddle tunes all in the same set. They hop scotch from bluegrass hoedowns to jazz festivals leaving small musical twisters in their wake. When people ask what kind of music they play, bassist Mark Diamond replies, Well, what kind of music do you like? Or as Stone puts it, Blending genres is like trying to braid water: you quickly find out it's all one thing anyway. The quartet is rounded out with musically-telepathic fiddler Adam Galblum and gravity-defying guitarist Grant Gordy, and occasional special guests Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, and Matt Flinner on mandolin.
The latest chapter in Stone's musical travelogue takes place in Africa. He went knowing what's still news to most: that the hide-covered instrument with an extra drone string we call the banjo actually comes from West Africa. Stone became particularly curious about what aspects of banjo-playing did not make it across the ocean on slave ships headed west from Senegal and Mali in the 1700-1800's. What might have been passed on had the most preeminent musicians taught us Westerners on their own turf, with their own methods and with the freedom to convey the enormous scope and gravity of their music?
My early teachers Tony Trischka and Bill Evans are both steeped in the diversity of new world banjo stylings, explains Stone. Some traditions like Minstrelsy can be traced back to the earliest handoff of slave music to curious white folks in the 1800s. Yet somehow I wasn't satisfied with just learning this hybrid music. I couldn't help but wonder if there was more under the surface. Like a whole continent perhaps?
During his seven-week trip to Mali, Stone found himself sitting in with Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra in downtown Bamako, lost in circles of Wassoulou polyrhythms and in a rural Dogon village with no electricity where he inadvertently discovered a banjo predecessor unheard of in the West. From Africa to Appalachia, his new collaborative album with griot singer and kora player Mansa Sissoko will feature special guests Bassekou Kouyate (ngoni) and Casey Driessen (fiddle).
He traveled to Africa to seek out the roots of the banjo and the idiosyncrasies that never made it to America. What he found was the musical culture that spawned the many branches of roots music. As always, Stone applied his fanciful diligence, finding himself inside another world and ready to bring it into his music wholeheartedly.
Source: Jayme Stone
Jayme Stone, The Utmost (Self Published, 2007)
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