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Jayme Stone expands the horizons of the banjo, along with his favourite musicians

Jayme Stone appears at the Guelph Jazz Festival on September 7. Read our review of his appearance at Ottawa Chamberfest.


When going to hear Jayme Stone, you might want to check your assumptions at the door.

Nick Fraser, Joe Phillips, Jayme Stone, and Andrew Downing kept a late night audience fully awake at the 2011 Guelph Jazzfest ©Brett Delmage, 2011Yes, Stone plays the banjo and has studied with masters of that instrument; no, this won't be a bluegrass concert and he's nothing like Pete Seeger.

Yes, there's a concerto in the program; no, it won't sound anything like Brahms or Beethoven.

Yes, he's playing with some of the best jazz improvisers in Toronto, including drummer Nick Fraser, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, and cellist Andrew Downing, as well as NYC saxophonist Rob Mosher; no, he doesn't play bebop or mainstream jazz.

Stone loves the fact that his music can't be easily categorized, and can be enjoyed as jazz, chamber music, or world music.

“I like that it inhabits this space between so many different styles, and it's actually hard to pin down ,,, in a way that it doesn't fit anywhere so it fits everywhere.”

The one thing you can be sure is that he will be playing songs from his new album, The Other Side of the Air, which was released July 30. It's Stone's fourth album; his previous three albums were all nominated for Juno Awards. Two won Junos, one as Best Instrumental Album and one as Best World Music Album of the Year.

The new album, he says, actually reflects more closely his live shows. It features the musicians with whom he has been playing with regularly for the past few years. Many of these he has known for much longer than that – for up to 15 years, ever since he moved back to Toronto and started composing and playing with jazz and improvising musicians.

Stone's current tour includes venues ranging from intimate spaces like the Blue Skies Folk Festival, all the way up to the Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC.

OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor talked with Stone in late July. The following is an edited version of their conversation. It ranged from the attractions of the banjo and how he has extended its range; his experiences at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music; the jazz musicians who have influenced him; the role of improvisation in his music; how Andrew Downing composed the concerto on his latest album; and how he had an artist create mobiles for the album's cover.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: When did you first hear the banjo?

Jayme Stone: Well, I slowly started hearing the banjo in different contexts listening to a lot of old-time and bluegrass music in my mid-teens. And then when I was 16, I went to see Béla Fleck play at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver and it turned my world upside-down. It somehow captured everything I loved about all these roots music traditions that I was getting into, and, at the same time, he tore the roof off what people thought was possible on the instrument. And it seemed that just about anything I wanted to do musically might be possible on the banjo.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Did you come from a musical family? Had you been learning music before this?

Stone: I didn't come from a musical family but I was playing guitar and I was very passionate about music.

But as much as a listener as a player. And I think it wasn't until I started playing the banjo that somehow I realized that I could play the things that were in my head and the things that I was hearing on record, myself. And that was a big revelation that came at that same time.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What is it about the banjo's sound that appeals to you?

Stone: You know, I just love the timbre of the instrument. The quirky physics of it are such that the lowest and the highest strings are right next to each other, and there's this really neat ability for the banjo to be like a chameleon. It can be a rhythmic instrument or a melodic instrument, and it can blend back or forth from the foreground to the background in a really cool way. So I love its flexibility, and I also was really attracted – and still am – to the fact that there aren't that many banjo players. And so it felt like there's a lot of uncharted territory for the instrument.

There's this really neat ability for the banjo to be like a chameleon. It can be a rhythmic instrument or a melodic instrument, and it can blend back or forth from the foreground to the background.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So you're 16, you're falling in love with the banjo: how did you go on from there?

Stone: I sat in my room in a chair and practised for about eight hours a day for many years. I'm still at it. It's definitely a life-long process learning music. And I've learned from everybody – friends and peers and teachers and books and going to see people play and attending workshops. It's what's called self-taught but that just basically means I learned every way that I could, and from everyone that I could.

One of the things that I'm interested in is exploring and bringing together different performance practices: different ways of going about learning music. That's always been something that's really interesting. I love playing with chamber musicians, and I love playing with folk musicians where everybody learns everything orally. And I also find that there's a lot that can be done by notating music and being able to communicate very accurately the sonic picture that's in one's head. And at the same time, I love the collaborative process where music's just in the air and people are learning everything by ear. And so all of those things, to me, are really interesting and bring out different layers of the music.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I understand you studied at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in 2004? What was that like?

Stone: It was such an extraordinary experience. Of course I was the only banjo player and I was the only person there who didn't read music and hadn't gone to music school. There were a lot of givens where I was on some level an outsider, and at the same time it was a really welcoming environment. Everybody was really interested in refreshing their musicality and learning and playing together.

There was a real focus on writing music, and so I wrote a lot when I was out there. and it really opened my ears and sensibilities to so many different things. And just getting to play with all these great musicians! On the faculty at that time was Dave Douglas, who's one of my favourite trumpet players, and an amazing composer; and Bill Frisell, who's my long-time hero. It was just quite amazing, and all of that in the beautiful setting of being out in the mountains and having nothing to take care of but sleeping and making music.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Bill Frisell has combined Americana with jazz – among other things. Did that influence you?

Stone: Definitely, yes. When I started playing, Bill was kind of in his heyday: he was making one or two records a year, and that in itself was really inspiring – not that he was prolific but that was always doing so many projects. That I think, conceptually, spoke to me and it's something that I have continued to do: making music with a lot of different people in a lot of different contexts – and not so much worrying about staying in any one stylistic territory.

And I just loved his playing.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Did you get any chance to do any rethinking of your instrument when you were at Banff?

Stone: Absolutely, Being surrounded by musicians and music that was never written for the banjo, I constantly had to adapt, which is something I've been doing all along. It was really great to learn from guitar players and other instrument players and really experience the essentials of music live – they're common to all instruments. And although we all have our particular limitations and particular strengths, the basics of music are shared by everybody.

I still do strive to have the banjo just be a musical instrument and not just an instrument which is best for bluegrass, or limited by genre. And that requires a little bit of legwork.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Is it partly that you've slowed it down a lot from classic bluegrass, those blindingly fast notes?

Stone: Yes, definitely that's one of the things, is to really make a home for the banjo at different tempos, and with different kinds of time feels. As you say, there is a great tradition for playing the banjo blazingly fast, and it's taken some discovery to create music where the banjo still is able to do things that feel natural and sound right, and yet are inhabiting a world that people aren't used to hearing it in.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I understand that you bow the banjo sometimes?

Stone: I do, yes.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What kind of sounds do you get out of it that way?

Stone: You know, it's really funny, because it's such an unusual sound and it has all these connotations. So people who are familiar with Indian music say it sounds like the Sarangi, which is an Indian classical instrument, and other people think it sounds like an Erhu, the Chinese bowed fiddle, and there's an instrument in West Africa called the Sokou. And so there are essentially bowed instruments with a skin head and some kind of resonating chamber all over the world. And so it sounds like those, and there's so much resonance in the chamber of the banjo's resonator that it actually has this natural reverb to it that's really cool. It sounds almost like a tiny church.

There's so much resonance in the chamber of the banjo's resonator that it actually has this natural reverb to it that's really cool. It sounds almost like a tiny church.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: When you're playing the banjo regularly, do you ever find you have to fight against its percussive nature?

Stone: Yes, sometimes I feel like I'm fighting against its nature, and other times I feel like I'm just expanding its nature. Sometimes it's funny – just hearing something in my head makes me play different, and even though it's still a banjo, some of the ideas I bring to it are different. Like, the banjo doesn't have a lot of sustain, but sometimes I just pretend it does. I just imagine it like a voice, and I play a line like it's being sung. And it's never going to sound like the human voice, of course, but sometimes the power of imagining something to be a certain way can actually give it some qualities that aren't always present.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: One of things about the banjo I notice is that it does seem to cut through other instruments. Is that a good thing, bad thing, just something you work with?

Stone: Just something you work with? It's a great thing in a lot of ways: it's wonderful.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I understand you had lessons from [banjo master] Tony Trischka: what did you learn from him?

Stone: That was extraordinary. He was among my very, very favourite banjo players, and it was very early on and I got a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to go and take lessons with him for a year. And it was – wow! Just so great! He's so generous and he embodies so many of the banjo's traditions. He's a modern pioneer in a lot of ways. He was the first pioneer of really modern banjo playing, Béla Fleck studied with him, and at the same time he's an incredible bluegrass player. He's also really knowledgeable: he was the first person that told me the banjo came from West Africa. He plays gourd banjos and turn-of-the-century parlor music. He's, on some level, explored most of the sounds that have ever been done historically on the banjo, in some way. And he's a totally great, free-thinking improviser. It was a blast!

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What about [banjo master] Alan Munde? You studied with him as well early on?

Stone: Yes! Alan is such a fantastic banjo player and also really open-minded. He was always really encouraging, even when I was interested in learning music that he wasn't familiar with. And at the same time, I got a really good grounding in melodic-style banjo and just got a lot of playing opportunity. We would just play together a lot and I played with him on this little television show in West Texas. Every week, I'd get to learn a whole bunch of new tunes and play them. It was great fun.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Your former group, Tricycle, I read one description of it as “Steve Reich spinning an old jazz record in the back woods”. Does that still apply to your current music?

Stone: (surprised) Yes, maybe so, maybe so. I like all those images. Steve Reich's music has definitely been a big influence and something about those ever-changing intricate melodic lines suits the banjo really well. And then of course the backwoods connotation: there is, regardless of how modern the music is, there always is a sense that the banjo is a really earthy instrument. So sure.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What's the role of improvisation in your music? How much is through-composed and how much is improvised?

Stone: There is a lot of both. I could say maybe equal parts improvisation and composition. I'm very interested in the musicians that I play with – part of what brings us together is we all share an interest in how these things intersect and how they inform each other.

The compositions get informed by the things that get improvised. They get built back into the tunes and vice-versa: the material presented in the compositions informs how you're going to improvise over them. And I love that combination where anytime that we know that if something gets interesting, we're going to follow that path. If somebody does something unexpected, everybody's ready to turn on a dime and go there. At the same time, there are really detailed written parts where you get a level of intricacy and dynamics and things like that that may not get improvised if people were just left to their own devices. I love both of things that those tools bring to music, and I like to have it all.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How and when did you get introduced to jazz?

Stone: I've always listened to so many different kinds of music and so before I started playing the banjo I was well into jazz and, as well, world music and listening to chamber music came later. I still remember the first solo I ever transcribed after playing the banjo was Jan Garbarek's solo on his record called Ragas and Sagas. It was put out by a record label called ECM that really helped to create this whole community of ... they were at the centre of this Northern European jazz scene. Keith Jarrett made records for them and I really loved that music. There was a kind of spaciousness and a kind of meditative quality to a lot of that music: it didn't sound like bebop, but there was a lot of improvisation and it was very textural. They cared a lot about the sound quality, and so something about the musicians on that record label really spoke to me. And that was a big influence – still is, in fact.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Where there any other jazz musicians who particularly influenced you?

Stone: Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Ralph Towner.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I noticed that many of the musicians who played on your latest album also play chamber music – for example, Andrew Downing, Rob Mosher and Kevin Turcotte. Did that influence you, or did you use what they were already interested in?

Stone: Both. I moved back to Toronto just before I turned 20, and that was when I started writing music, and when I first started performing and putting bands together. And I would go see, and soon after, play with Andrew and Kevin and Nick and all those guys. They were the people I would go and listen to, and I just naturally fell in with the creative music and jazz community in Toronto. I wasn't at that time at all interested in playing bluegrass anymore, and I just wanted to write. And those were the people who were also focused on playing original music, and everyone was always involved in helping foster people's own creative music. And I really loved it. So they were definitely influences – and then, soon after, peers and friends.

So part of the idea with this new record is that I came full circle. The core people on the record are people I've been playing with now, some for 15 years. I've toured with all of them a lot, and they've been peppered on my other records, but I wanted to really bring that whole group together, and make a record. It was really special.

I just naturally fell in with the creative music and jazz community in Toronto. I wasn't at that time at all interested in playing bluegrass anymore, and I just wanted to write. And those were the people who were also focused on playing original music, and everyone was always involved in helping foster people's own creative music. And I really loved it.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What about chamber music itself? Did you listen to that as much as you did chamber jazz?

Stone: Yes, in recent years I have been. I was really late in coming to classical music, and went to the symphony for the first time in my mid-20s. It's still a very new discovery for me, but something that I'm more and more interested in.

I had been playing a lot of Bach and starting to perform Bach. That became something in the last few years that I would always do in concerts, is play one or two Bach pieces. And that has opened some doors to playing at chamber music festivals. And then, of course, Andrew [Downing] was commissioned to write a banjo concerto for me, which is on the record. And that really helped me take the plunge into playing chamber music.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: That was commissioned for the Home County Folk Festival in London in 2012?

Stone: Right.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Why did Home County commission the piece from Andrew?

Stone: Well, Andrew's from London, and had a longstanding relationship with them. A couple of years ago they had asked him to write orchestral arrangements for songs by Canadian songwriters, and so he had done that. And then they said, maybe next year we should take it one step further and would you be up for writing a piece for orchestra that incorporates some kind of folk element? And he immediately thought of me and called me up to see if I'd be interested in having him write a banjo concerto? I jumped at the chance.

And it was really great, a really, really amazing experience. We were touring together a lot that year, so he could bounce ideas off me and I was able to show him some of the ins and outs of how the banjo works – and then also be constantly surprised by seeing the banjo through a totally different lens. There's a lot of things about it that really make sense on the instrument, and other things that he just brings a whole new perspective on how you might play the instrument. It was a really great experience.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: In the third movement, you melded the banjo and the strings at the beginning. Was that complicated?

Stone: Yup. It was probably the hardest piece I've ever played.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did it feel playing someone else's composition which had been written for you?

Stone: It was really interesting. It was definitely invigorating to learn all this new material, and have to reinvent my technique many times over in order to be able to play it, and very challenging at the same time. It was quite a process to do.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So the record flowed out of the live performances you'd been doing?

Stone: Yes, exactly.

Everything about the record, even though it's so unique and unexpected in a lot of ways, everything about how it came together and came to be, what it is and who's on it, was just very natural to me.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How much cello and how much bass did Andrew play on the album?

Stone: I would say probably half and half. The way that he plays cello is so fantastic and unique because he has a touch on the instrument especially when he's playing pizzicato that's so cool. I wrote a couple of tunes with that in mind where I specifically wanted him to play cello in the unique way that he does, and also because knows the bass so well he and Joe [Phillips] can become like one mind in a lot of ways. They can finish each others' sentences and it's like this tandem at the low end. The way they play together is just extraordinary.

The record sums up all the different kinds of music and people I've been playing with over the last couple of years. It was the state of where my imagination and exploration was. A lot of it was really about bringing these particular people together and all the things they bring.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: The CD just says Rob Mosher was playing woodwinds; does that mean primarily soprano sax?

Stone: He plays primarily clarinet, and then there's also soprano sax, oboe, and English horn. It's quite extensive. And that also came out of playing live.

We've been touring a lot together, in the last few years, and he started out just playing soprano saxophone, and then realized quickly that actually the clarinet suited the music. And then he brought the oboe, and that was magical, and then the English horn. And now he plays all of them and sometimes will switch between all of them, even within one song. I think he plays all the horns on “A Poet in Her Own Country”.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Tell me about the inspiration for the CD.

Stone: Well, in a way, the record sums up all the different kinds of music and people I've been playing with over the last couple of years. It was the state of where my imagination and exploration was. A lot of it was really about bringing these particular people together and all the things they bring.

And then I feel that I've just sort of absorbed all of the sounds and influences that I've explored in more detail in my last couple of records, where there's West African music and other foreign sounds. And so the world music element has just like penetrated into the way that I hear music, and so even though this is largely my own original compositions, there are a lot of these worldbeat influences there.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did you actually compose the pieces? Where did they start?

Stone: Many of them started on the banjo, but more and more especially some of the last few pieces that I wrote for it, I wrote a lot of them just using notation software. I used Sibelius and a lot of it was a combination of playing things on the banjo, singing things, just hearing things in my head, and just listening to ideas and helping them along as they develop.

So my composition practice really changed a lot around the time of writing all the music for the record, and in a lot of ways, came off the banjo.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I understand that a book you read – The atlas of remote islands: 50 islands I have never set foot on and never will, by Judith Schalansky – influenced the record?

Stone: It's a whimsical book: part accurate atlas and part strange stories about those obscure islands. It's a really cool book.

A couple of the pieces, “Alexander Island” and “Debussy Heights”, which are paired on the record: that was influenced by that book. I read about Debussy Heights, which are a mountain range on this remote island called Alexander Island down in Antarctica, and something about it sparked my imagination. I loved the title: “Debussy Heights” seems very grand, and of course mentions one of my favourite composers, and it somehow sounds like one of those brownstone apartment buildings in Brooklyn. Just something about it really compelled me.

A lot of times it's books that really get my imagination fired up, even though it's instrumental music. There's some sense that stories put me in a space where I can imagine a new land or something that can get explored or at least inspired by a new sound.

The Other Side of the Air: one of the photos from the cover photo shoot.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: The cover of the new CD is fascinating. It was inspired by a mobile?

Stone: The cover was a real art project, very much like the music itself. I had this idea [which] took shape in my mind, and then I had to set about figuring out how to make it actually happen. I have always used illustration on my record covers, and worked closely with different illustrators with each one.

I wanted to, for the first time actually, put a picture of me on the cover of the record, and yet I really wanted some illustrative component. But I didn't want it to be Photoshop-collaged. And I wondered how to bring these things together, and I thought, “Wow, wouldn't it be cool if I made a mobile and had me photographed in amongst it?”

I've always loved Alexander Calder – he's an amazing artist who's most well-known for making these incredible mobiles, so that really inspired me. I was trying to think how to do this, and I ended up calling up an illustrator called Darren Booth, who lives outside of Toronto, whose work I have always really loved. He was on my bookmarked list of artists to work with at some point, and I said “Listen, I know usually your work is in two dimension, but would you be up for trying to do this big project with me?”

And he was totally keen. The first time we talked for an hour – equal parts conceptually about what I was after, and also technically how we were going to make it happen. He ended up experimenting a lot.

So it's fourteen pieces of coreboard, and then he collaged pieces of his paintings. So each of the colours: even if one of them looks orange, it's actually a collage of all different orange pieces, so there's all this texture and variation.

And then we hung them in this large room, fourteen feet deep. The effect on the cover is subtle: it was actually pretty epic from the first mobile you see in the bottom right corner to the green one sitting way back behind me. Even though it's in two dimensions on [the cover], there's all this depth of field that was done by hanging them. It actually took us five hours to do it.

And then I worked with a great photographer called Vanessa Heins who shot the whole thing on an analog camera, an analog medium format Hasselblad camera. It was great fun! We did it a few days before the record got made, and it just felt like yet another fun and challenging art project.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How would you describe this album, The Other Side of the Air?

Stone: I do my best to avoid the question. I mostly just tell stories about it, because it's hard to sum up. Part of what I love about instrumental music is that it starts where language stops. It's something that ... there are stories and adjectives and images that are all hovering around: you have a feeling and a sense, it's evocative, and yet it's never any of those things. I think sophisticated music can never be pinned down to anything you could describe about it.

And so I like that it inhabits this space between so many different styles, and it's actually hard to pin down. It's a tricky business in terms of doing interviews and writing press releases and pitching a project and all that stuff, but it's a game I'm happy to play because I find it really satisfying to get to make this unique music.

I feel our tour schedule reflects that. We play at a chamber music festival one day, and a world music festival the next, a folk festival, a jazz festival.

I love in a way that it doesn't fit anywhere so it fits everywhere.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Why the Tennessee Waltz as a closer?

Stone: There was a tour a few years ago, and we rehearsed once at the beginning of the tour and then we just did our first gig. Without realizing it, we had come to the end of the show and hadn't planned an encore. We were standing there behind the curtain, and I just turned to everybody and it's like, “You guys know the Tennessee Waltz?”

It's funny, because it wasn't even a tune that I played. It's one of those melodies that everybody just knows, and so we all just knew it. And we played it, and it was really magical. The song itself is such an amazing one and was so widespread and popular that people really have strong associations to it.

And after the show I remember people were coming up and saying, “Oh that tune reminds me of... It was my grandfather's favourite tune, that was the song that my parents danced to on the first dance at their wedding. And people said it made them cry. It just felt like every time we played it, it had a big effect – and I just love it. And something about the way that ensemble plays it, it lives between folk and jazz music.

And so it became a band tradition. We started playing it at every encore – never arranged it, never rehearsed it, or talked about it, and it was different every night. And so when it came time to make the record, it felt like it needed to be our little encore on the record. And after the concerto, I felt like it was nice to have a little silence and then a palate cleanser at the very end. So I feel like it worked out well.

Jayme Stone brings his group to Ottawa Chamberfest on Saturday, August 3, at 9:30 p.m., at St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts. He will also appear at the Guelph Jazz Festival for a free outdoor concert on Saturday, September 7.

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