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Jayme Stone melds chamber music, jazz, and bit of bluegrass into an intricate whole (review)

Jayme Stone's Chamberfringe concert was full of careful listening and intricate collborations. (l-r: Joe Phillips, Stone, Andrew Downing) ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Jayme Stone
Ottawa Chamberfest
St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts and Humanities
Saturday, August 3, 2013 – 9:30 p.m.

View photos of this concert

Read the OttawaJazzScene.ca interview with Jayme Stone about this concert and his new CD: Jayme Stone expands the horizons of the banjo, along with his favourite musicians

The only problem with Jayme Stone's performance at Chamberfest was that it was too short.

In the 60 minutes allocated to him, Stone and his musicians played music from three of his four albums, plus a tip-of-the-hat to Chamberfest with a Bach suite. But there simply wasn't time to play the concerto which is the centerpiece of his just-released album, The Other Side of the Air. The concerto would have admirably suited the location and audience, and I was looking forward to hearing it live.

Regardless, the show was a good introduction to Stone, his original approach to the banjo, his genre-bending music, and the fine jazz musicians he plays with. It was well-paced and diverse, with Stone providing explanations and background for the music, and creating a strong connection with the audience.

The banjo has been pigeonholed as a bluegrass, Americana, or Dixieland instrument: Béla Fleck tore big holes in those barriers several decades ago, and Stone has continued that progress. Stone has reenvisioned the banjo as a simply a resonant, stringed instrument, and imagined new contexts for it: West African rhythms, music inspired by world folk dances, baroque classical music, and definitely jazz.

In Saturday's concert, the modus operandi was jazz, although the sources were more diverse. Stone was accompanied by four musicians well-known as jazz improvisers: Andrew Downing on cello, Joe Phillips on bass, and Nick Fraser on drums (all from Toronto), and Rob Mosher on clarinet, soprano sax, English horn, and oboe (ex-Toronto, now living in Brooklyn). They all have a notable free jazz side, and Downing, Phillips, and Mosher also play classical and chamber music.

Stone has also played with most of them for up to 15 years. You could hear that familiarity in how easily they underlaid each others' solos and the depth of layering in the music.

The concert began with “Radio Wassoulou”, which also opens the new CD: a strongly textural piece with a bit of a down-home feel, in which banjo, cello, bass, soprano sax, and clarinet danced in and around each other, supported by drums.

Next were two linked pieces from the CD inspired by an island in Antarctica, “Alexander Island” and “Debussy Heights”. The music started slowly and melancholy, with a simple line on banjo underlined by bowed bass. Mosher took up the lonely theme on clarinet, and then the banjo returned, deeper and more insistently. Eventually, they all moved to a more propulsive, but not aggressive, melody on clarinet, cello and banjo, which strengthened into a joyful theme before ending in a final duet between banjo and clarinet.

It was followed by “Andrea Berget” from an earlier CD, Room of Wonders, featuring bright clarinet over bowed bass and cello, with accents from banjo.

For his CD From Africa to Appalachia, Stone spent almost two months researching the origins of the banjo in Mali. “Sunjata”, the next piece, is a 13th century song from West Africa, a praise song for the king who founded the Malian empire. It allowed all the musicians to explore and collaborate on its strong African-style rhythms, holding and pushing notes, ending with a strong flourish.

“Sing It Right” was from Stone's latest CD, but in fact, he said, it was a tune he had written a while ago and forgotten – and then revived and rearranged. It was a thoughtful, delicate piece, featuring Downing on cello in an almost-classical mode, accented by banjo and clarinet and bass. The classical mood continued with the next piece, the first movement of Bach's Suite No. 4 in E Flat Major (the Allemande). Stone took the lead on banjo, which sounded remarkably like a harpsichord, supported by Phillips' strong, evocative lines on bowed bass. Unsurprisingly, it evoked strong applause.

The mood brightened for the next piece, an inviting calypso number from Trinidad which allowed all the musicians to stretch out and have fun, and featured a strong drum solo from Fraser. It again received a warm reception from the audience.

The last piece, “Sister”, was from Stone's first album, The Utmost, and was the nearest to bluegrass which he had played all night. But if the banjo opened in that mode, the sound of Mosher's English horn together with Downing's cello almost immediately subverted the audience's expectations, with a romantic melody. The tension between the two strands continued, as Stone continued blazingly fast. Mosher later switched to oboe, playing with and interrupting the melody and pushing upwards, before he and Downing let their lines slowly fade out, accompanied by fine strumming on the banjo. The audience, which filled the church almost to the back, again responded enthusiastically.

Stone is an imaginative musician and composer, who has a talent for picking really good musicians to perform with. It will be interesting to see where he goes next.

Jayme Stone & The Other Side of the Air will play a free concert at the Guelph Jazz Festival on Saturday, September 7, at the Community Stage, Market Square at 7:30 p.m.

Set list

  • Radio Wassoulou
  • Alexander Island / Debussy Heights
  • Andrea Berget
  • Sunjata
  • Sing It Right
  • Suite No. 4 in E Flat Major by Johann Sebastian Bach
  • a calypso number (unnamed)
  • Sister

    – Alayne McGregor

See also:

All images ©Brett Delmage, 2013
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