On November 8, 2018, Jayme Stone, banjo player extraordinaire, and his fine four-piece band share the folk song treasures in their Folklife performance at the NAC.
The Juno award-winner known for his innovative approach to the banjo will be playing the NAC’s Azrieli studio as part of a three-date Ontario tour.
In the bio for Stone’s Folklife project, old songs are likened to heirloom seeds that he and his band plant in modern soil by creatively re-imagining them.
“We had just played on this really lovely farm on this island near New York City and I had this image,” says Stone. “I imagined what it would mean for an old farmer a few generations back to store some seeds hoping that one day somebody would not only have the curiosity to see what was in there but to actually do the work of replanting them, tending to them, scattering seeds again and seeing what kind of heirloom varieties might sprout. And so that felt like a good working metaphor because it wasn’t so much that we’re like dusting off old things and that’s that. These songs actually get transformed and reworked and, and are alive again today.”
Stone explains that he avoids using the word authenticity and doesn’t think about genre and style so much.
“I just put the things together that I love and that usually works well,” he says.
He explains how the idea of authenticity is typically used to draw arbitrary dividing lines in music. Even Alan Lomax was uncomfortable accepting that a musician like Lead Belly could play a slave song he learned from his grandfather and then launch into a pop song he heard on the radio.
I don’t think it’s difficult really, for somebody to listen to Radiohead, love Bach, play traditional music and write pop songs; that doesn’t seem strange to me at all.
The truth is “musicians are wiley creatures; we’re omnivorous, usually by default,” says Stone. “So I don’t think it’s difficult really, for somebody to listen to Radiohead, love Bach, play traditional music and write pop songs; that doesn’t seem strange to me at all.”
On Thursday Stone will be playing as part of an ensemble that look a lot like a traditional string band from the early days of radio, gathered around a single microphone armed with four-part vocal harmonies, banjo, fiddle, accordion and upright bass. In the hands of these players though the sonic palette is richer than that of a typical string band.
“It feels string bandy. The accordion kind of throws it a little left of centre, which is great,” says Stone. “Sumaiah, the fiddler does a lot of what we call chopping which is playing the fiddle as a rhythmic instrument. She is basically playing drums on the fiddle. And then Joe, the bass player bows a lot so we can get this string section lushness and then plays pizzicato and has lots of like extended technique. So everybody really can make their instruments sound like a lot more than what you’d normally think. And then you, you know, exponentially to the power of four, we have a lot of textural combinations that go well beyond what you’d expect from a string band.”
Accordionist Moira Smiley, fiddler Sumaia Jackson and bassist Joe Phillips have been collaborating with Stone for a few years now and their ease in sharing ideas and playing off each other shows.
Whereas the 2015 album Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project featured songs collected by folklorist Alan Lomax, on the Folklife record, Stone chose songs recorded by the many other collectors who were doing the same kind of field work as Lomax around the same time and later.
Folklife is about bringing more of these undiscovered gems back into contemporary culture. Stone explains how he’d noticed that “generation after generation would go by and some of the same few songs were rattling around and getting done over and over again.” It seems to be because these same song were chosen from thousands others to be released on a bunch of LPs the Library of Congress put out in the fifties as “Best of” anthologies.
“And I realized that for every one of those songs there were hundreds more that were just as good, maybe even more interesting that were sitting in those archives often getting overlooked or gathering dust,” he says.
With songs like this and a talented band to play them, Thursday show promises to be a treat. There may even be a song or two from the record he’s currently working on which he describes as a “kind of experimental art pop project” that will be “totally different sonically and vibe-wise” from anything he’s done thus far. While it’s still early to talk about it, Stone mentions that it will be more textural featuring original songs, electric banjo and synthesizer. That being said, this might also be a chance to hear Stone play the folk treasures before he delves into the next record full steam.
Jayme Stone’s Folklife plays the NAC’s Azrieli Studio Thursday November 8, 2018 at 8pm. Tickets are $40 after taxes.