Anyone who has read my blog even occasionally has probably noticed that I write about banjos a lot. In addition to many other pieces, I've discussed the forthcoming Banjo Project documentary, listed the instrument as one of the most important elements of American roots music, and just last week, I wrote a piece about Bela Fleck's wildly ambitious pursuits pushing the once provincial instrument in countless new directions. I think we're living in a sort of Renaissance period for the banjo, and Jayme Stone is certainly one of those artists helping to redefine and re-imagine the landscape of banjo music. His newest album, Room of Wonders, is an inspired romp of varied tunes from the world over.
Mr. Stone is a Canadian, but his musical interests are not bound by any geographic or national boundaries. Room of Wonders includes tunes arranged from or inspired by songs from Bulgaria, southern Italy, Ireland, Brazil, and the Appalachian mountains of America. It includes Polkas, one bluegrass breakdown, and a Bach piece for good measure. Make no mistake, though, this is roots music. However, the roots explored by Stone are very deep and spread across the globe. At a time of national revolutions, natural catastrophes, and political turmoil, projects like this remind us just how much all humans have in common. One quickly notices unexpected similarities in the traditional music of cultures thousands of miles and continents apart. Room of Wonders is a testament to the power of art to forge connections and dissolve boundaries between humans of all races and nationalities.
The album was inspired when Stone was preparing dinner one evening, listening to classical music. “I was listening to Bach’s French Suites while cooking. The performance had such a lilt to it that I literally wanted to dance,” Stone recalls. “It was an epiphany moment. Bach used European folk dance forms to inform his own music. I realized I could explore folk dances in my own way, but with a worldwide scope.” He explained that "dance was an umbrella" under which he could combine diverse musical interests. Room of Wonders is the manifestation of that idea.
The album begins with an uptempo Bulgarian folk dance full of percussive flourishes combined with intricate melodies and counter-melodies. Fiddle master Casey Driessen was one of the musicians tapped for the project, and from this first track, one realizes that the collaboration between these two provides Room of Wonders with an electric, kinetic energy and deep groove. Stone calls Driessen, known for his wildly percussive bow style, "a drummer living in a fiddler's body." Driessen's rhythmic bowing is exemplified throughout the album, but no more so than in the lively fiddle work found in "Planinsko Horo," another Bulgarian dance tune. Driessen plays a five-string fiddle with an extra low string, and given the song's wild compositional shifts and key changes, I'm sure the extra range was welcome.
While the album certainly has a heavy dose of foot-stomping rhythmic grooves, there is also a sweeping lyrical quality found throughout. In addition to Driessen, Stone enlisted guitarist Grant Gordy of David Grisman Quartet fame and Greg Garrison, the former bassist for the Punch Brothers. With Stone's banjo at the helm, this is a super group of some of the most accomplished musicians in today's progressive acoustic music. All are master improvisers and supremely well trained. Stone's arrangements, however, sometimes kept them on a tight leash, at least with respect to extended solos and breaks. The banjo player says, “I wanted to find out what would happen to that energy, if you brought together jazz artists but didn’t give them solos." The experiment certainly worked, because the album often exudes a free-wheeling energy, but remains exquisitely controlled and balanced. The tension between technical command and expressive groove is spot on. The occasional addition of horns, percussion, and even accordion to the string band foundation also allows the music to move in unexpected directions.
Case in point is "Vinicius," a jazz-inflected song at times reminiscent of some of my favorite jazz experiments from the late 60's and early 70's (Harold Land & Bobby Hutcherson's San Francisco immediately comes to mind.) The tune begins with lyrical horn lines atop energetic Brazilian rhythms before giving way to a more pensive and melancholy tone sparsely punctuated with banjo riffs, guitar runs, and fiddle chops. Soon enough, however, the song shift its way into another upbeat Samba groove. The players carry off these musical hybrids so effortlessly that one almost forgets the dense complexity underpinning the entire affair.
At its heart, however, this is still a banjo player's project, and having at least one Appalachian tune borders on mandatory for an album of global folk forms. The traditional fiddle tune, "Ways of the World," begins with Driessen's fiddle stating the song's theme at breakneck speed. Shortly thereafter, Stone joins in, and before too long, his banjo rolls through the song showing that he can hold his own in any bluegrass breakdown despite spending evenings working on Bach suites. The diversity and fearlessness in Stone's playing and arranging are evident throughout. Whether displaying rapid fire triplets used to enliven an open bit of musical space, leading classical arrangements with single string virtuosity, or bringing the glorious backwoods psychedelia of syncopated bluegrass rhythms, Stone's banjo playing is a source of limitless creative expression. The fact that he gives his musical compatriots equal room to shine is evidence both of Stone's generosity and his dedication to the music as opposed to his ego.
As mentioned above, Room of Wonders is a musical journey through differing continents, musical genres, and folk cultures. The music simultaneously pays homage to varying folk and musical traditions while building upon them and forging new ones. This is one of the most important functions of great art - to immortalize the past by transforming it for future generations. To that end, I couldn't help but notice in the liner notes that the album was funded in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. I found this heartening and was glad to see that more enlightened governments realize the civic value inherent in art, especially those works of cross-cultural exchange. Perhaps U.S. policy-makers will take note, considering our art and cultural agencies are currently on the chopping block, even despite having been consistently underfunded, neutered, and slowly starved over the years to the point that they exist mainly as malnourished arts appreciation agencies rather than facilitators of engaging contemporary artists. I won't hold my breath for enlightened policies here at home, but I'm glad that in the meantime I can enjoy the wonders of Jayme Stone and his globe-trotting explorations.__________________________