When it comes to promoting the banjo and broadening its possibilities, Jayme Stone plays like a one-man band.
For Stone — a 33-year-old banjo virtuoso and two-time Juno winner who is in Calgary today as part of a tour in support of his third CD, Room of Wonders — the evolution and history of the instrument are practically as essential to the art of the banjo as the act of picking or strumming.
Ask him about lingering banjo stereotypes — the Hollywood minstrel shows, the Jed Clampett stuff — and he’ll tell you it’s only one part of the story, that it’s “a tiny and not always accurate picture.”
He’ll point out that there’s always been a “huge diversity of styles and approaches to playing banjo,” that proper young ladies in the 19th century, for instance, were “encouraged to take up the banjo and play in their drawing rooms — (something) quite different from the way it surfaced years later as a hillbilly instrument playing mountain music.”
Stone will point out, too, that, in the era before the advent of the electric guitar, the banjo became a staple of the Big Band sound. It only stepped out of the background and into popularity when bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs came along and refined the three-finger style of banjo picking — and when Bill Munroe, the self-proclaimed “father of bluegrass,” began featuring the instrument prominently in his bands.
The banjo, says Stone, “has had lots of lives.”
And now Stone, a Toronto native currently based in Colorado, is expanding its prospects in the classical realm.
Banjo concerto, anyone?
Stone, who has made a habit of mixing pieces by Bach in his gigs — “It’s a huge passion of mine,” he says — has been performing more and more with musicians who also play chamber music.
Cellist Andrew Downing, for example, who in addition to being a longtime member of Stone’s quartet — the other players are drummer Nick Fraser, and trumpeter Kevin Turcotte— is also a composer.
Commissioned by the Home County Folk Festival in London, Ont., to write orchestral music with a folk element to it, Downing immediately thought of composing a concerto. The work will premiere at the festival in July.
“On this tour, we’re kind of hanging out after the shows and working out ideas,” Stone says. “It’s a real cool process.”
The album Room of Wonders draws on the folk traditions of Norway, Sweden, Bulgaria, Brazil, Italy and North America to score its musical points.
Indeed, inspiration from the grassroots past has always had a central place in the direction and design of Stone’s repertoire.
The banjoist notes the importance of field research by people such as Alan Lomax, the pioneering American ethnomusicologist and folklorist.
Years ago, Stone says, “He (Lomax) had this vision of what he imagined to be a global jukebox, where everybody in the world would have access to field recordings from all over.”
Now, within the vast scope of the Internet, Lomax’ digitized legacy is freely available to all.
And as far as bolstering that legacy, “I’m interested in making the history in these archival recordings come to life,” the musician says. “I don’t want to see all of this incredible music gathering dust in libraries — I want to use it as a springboard for my own creative process.
“I love re-cycling and reinventing traditional music.”
Immediately following his Calgary engagement, Stone, who used his own field recordings made in 2007 to Mali as the basis for his acclaimed Africa to Appalachia CD, heads up to the University of Alberta’s Folkways Alive Centre, the repository of the complete Folkways recordings. There, he and his band will pick out musical gems suitable for arranging, and take their selections on the road.
Eventually, Stone says he wants to undertake tours to different Canadian communities and use the music that ties in with their history and origins as a way to get younger musicians there hip to their own culture, “and actually find a way to make it relevant to their own creative process.”
Jayme Stone performs with his quartet Sunday at Southwood United Church. For information, go to Fishcreekconcerts.com