Jayme Stone is the world’s most adventurous banjo player. His previous album World of Wonders explored music from across the centuries from Bulgaria, Ireland, Brazil, Germany and Italy, to name a few places. His album before that was a collaboration with Malian Kora player Mansa Sissoko As you might expect from someone with such a global appetite, the theme of his latest album The Other Side of the Air is travel. While the banjo is a featured instrument on several of the tracks, others focus more on Stone’s eclectic compositional skill. It turns out that he’s also adept at modern big band jazz and indie classical as well as the innumerable other styles he’s parsed over the years. Is there anything this guy CAN’T do?
What’s also interesting is that there’s hardly a hint of bluegrass here: more often than not, Stone’s banjo sounds more like an African lute – which, when you think about it, it is. A couple of tracks here revisit Stone’s African fascination, one a bounding number with Rob Mosher on tenor sax, Andrew Downing on bass and Nick Fraser on drums, the other a catchy tune with echoes of both the blues and Malian folk, no doubt inspired by Stone’s work with Sissoko. The Cinnamon Route features Stone and the band along with a chamber orchestra, imagining the spice trade as it makes its way from India, through the Middle East, to North Africa. Kevin Turcotte’s trumpet gets a lively conversation going with the banjo as they cross the Mediterranean and reach anthemic heights.
The rest of the album mines a vivid third-stream milieu. Sing It Right, one of Stone’s first compositions, works an uneasy circus rock theme, Stone plinking steadily as the orchestra rises and falls, nocturnal and enveloping, Mosher adding jaunty soprano sax as the arrangement grows to a lush exuberance a la Chris Jentsch. A Poet In Her Own Country makes a sharp contrast, an allusive, pensive theme. exchanges of voices within its tight arrangement. Debussy Heights reminds more of Schubert with its triumphant baroque-tinged counterpoint and cinematically pulsing crescendo.
The album’s centerpiece is This County Is My Home. an even more cinematic, four-part concerto for banjo and chamber orchestra by Downing, who conducts. A droll but disquieting cartoonish theme recurs throughout its eclectic segments, including but not limited to a brisk but wary march, a bit of a ragtime stroll, minimalist banjo passages over nebulous strings and winds, a brief, apprehensive solo banjo interlude and a long, dynamically charged, blustery, carnivalesque coda. The other tracks here are Alexander Island, a stately banjo-and-strings miniature, and a nocturnal version of the Tennessee Waltz, with just the banjo, rhythm section and sax. You want eclectic? Look no further. Stone and a somewhat smaller ensemble than he has on this album are at Joe’s Pub on Aug 11 at 7:30 PM for $15.
Jayme Stone’s new Room of Wonders is his dance album. Taking a page out of Bach’s French Dance Suite (which he plays here as an energetic, practically punk duo with bowed bass), the virtuoso banjo player and an inspired cast of characters romp through some imaginative new arrangements of traditional dances from around the world. Stone wanted to get jazz-quality players and put them together, but not as soloists, to see what kind of sparks would fly. The main group here consists of Casey Driessen of Abigail Washburn’s quartet on violin, Grant Gordy from Dave Grisman’s band on acoustic guitar and Greg Garrison on bass.
They open with the surprisingly pensive Krasavaska Ruchenitsr, a tricky Bulgarian tune in 7/8 time. Ever wonder what a banjo sounds like playing a horn line? You can find out here. Driessen follows Stone and counterintuitively takes it down rather than hitting a crescendo. Next they tackle a couple of Irish dances, the first darkly bristling, the next one more cheery. Vinicius, a shout-out to Vincius Cantuaria, mines the same kind of suspenseful restraint, with a tasty, buoyant trumpet solo from Kevin Turcotte, drummer Nick Fraser holding down a samba beat when the song isn’t going off into the clouds for an extended, atmospheric break.
Moresca Nuziale, an original wedding theme, keeps the wary, apprehensive vibe going – it’s the last thing most people would want at a wedding, which might make sense since the couple whose wedding the song debuted at broke up six months later. They follow that with Andrea Berget, a stately, wistful Norwegian tune that’s ostensibly a polka, then the Bach, then Stone’s captivating, Tunisian-inspired title track, lit up with some understatedly dramatic cymbal work from Fraser and a jazzy guitar solo. The rest of the album includes a spirited take on Bill Monroe’s Ways of the World, another Bulgarian tune with Driessen contributing cello-like tones on low octave fiddle, and the upbeat Troll King Dom Polska, featuring Vasen’s Olov Johansson on the autoharp-like nyckelharpa. Eclectic? Yeah, you could call it that. Stone will be at le Poisson Rouge on 3/16 at 7 PM opening for the reliably awesome, frequently haunting Las Rubias del Norte.