Sonic Chronicle: From Malian Melodies to a Midcentury Modern Symphony, Banjo Innovator Jayme Stone Travels to The Other Side of the Air
Banjoist, composer and musical globetrotter Jayme Stone was browsing a favorite bookstore, when he caught a little glimpse, as if through a spyglass, of an unknown, rippling shore. Stone had pulled out a curious volume: an atlas of remote islands, described in loving detail by a writer who had never set foot on them. “I saw this book, and my imagination caught on fire,” Stone recalls. “I could already hear music and thought I might write a whole body of work about these islands.”
Instead, Stone found a wider range of landmarks and guides to inspire him. He brings all his creative influences and forces to bear—a chamber symphony and rich brass, rippling melodies and evocative textures, past journeys and close friends—as he traces the lines of a distant icy mountain range, imagines the first step onto the coastline of an uninhabited island, and brings to life what Stravinsky might hum if he rambled the Appalachian Trail.
Stone draws his listeners to follow his instrument to these new, unexplored places on The Other Side of the Air (release date: July 30, 2013). Joined by veteran collaborators, Stone and company engage African (“Radio Wassoulou,” “Soundiata”), American roots (“Tennessee Waltz”), and contemporary classical elements in service of an imaginary travelogue to destinations known and unknown.
This expanded, exploratory sound serves one goal: To move people, to cross the gap between listener and performer. “As musicians, we practice and write to take what’s inside out to our listeners. There’s always music waiting, right there on the other side of the air,” reflects Stone. “It’s so close, yet it’s a lifelong practice to give shape to what we hear and then to send it off. I love negotiating that strange distance; absorbing different influences then sending them back out again.”
Stone didn’t limit himself to the original structure of islands, though his experience with the atlas helped him find the perfect thread that united pieces he had been working on for the previous two years.
Some of them—“Alexander Island,” a tribute to the planet’s second largest uninhabited island off the coast of Antarctica, and “Debussy Heights,” a fugue-touched tour of that island’s mountains—stemmed from the atlas. Others came from places closer to Stone’s own lived experience, including his time collecting field recordings in Mali. “Soundiata,” for example, recycles and re-imagines a 13th century praise song to the founder of the Malian Empire, sometimes called the Lion King.
Perhaps closest to home, Stone performs his longtime friend, go-to bassist, and composer Andrew Downing’s three movement work, “This County Is My Home,” a Concerto for Banjo and Chamber Symphony commissioned by the Home County Music Festival in Ontario. Though Downing is a seasoned classical composer—as well as a devotee of folk and jazz—he had never attempted to compose anything for banjo, resulting in parts that gleefully tugged Stone and his instrument into technically challenging, new territory. With midcentury cool but a deep sense of the banjo’s roots (hints of Stravinsky run through the piece’s new world sounds), Downing found a strikingly contemporary iteration for this age-old instrument.
Stone and Downing’s sonic landscapes prove wonderfully compelling—and show Stone’s amazing capacity to push and coax his instrument far beyond the terra firma of folk traditions. Setting off his sometimes percussive but always highly melodic style with unexpected arrangements—jazz-inflected horns or lush sweeps of strings—they has a pensive knack for compelling composition that evokes images of far-off, unseen lands.
“The Cinnamon Route” sketches an imaginary musical route for the spice-laden caravans that once travelled from Persia (home to the modes Stone used) via South India (the inspiration for several rhythms found in the piece) to West Africa. Composed for Stone’s close friend and frequent inspiration, the poet Ronna Bloom, “A Poet in Her Own Country” emerges softly from the bass reaches, with strings and woodwinds unfolding, before Stone’s buoyant banjo hits the scene.
The great range of color and mood stem not only from Stone’s compositions, but from a close collaboration with his core quintet, musicians he has toured with extensively—but never gathered all together on one recording. The exchange lends depth and texture to the music, revealing the detail and technical focus of Stone’s writing and playing, as well as the heart and exuberant imagination he and his band bring to the journey.
“These are my people,” Stone exclaims, “who are each brilliant composers and improvisers in their own right. There’s a deep sense of listening, camaraderie and understanding in the way we make music together. We can pass a wide range of references back and forth, through the air.”
"The Yo-Yo Ma of the banjo."
- GLOBE AND MAIL
"This is what the future of the banjo sounds like."
"I take back what I said about Jayme Stone."
- STEVE MARTIN