Jayme Stone’s imagination finds surprising new sounds in forgotten older songs

“I’ve always loved working with singers and creating a canvas and developing arrangements around the songs.” – Jayme Stone

The wondrous thing about Jayme Stone is the way his curiosity works to transform old songs into something new.

For the past five years this award-winning Toronto-raised, Colorado-based roots music has been focused on finding great timeless songs, digging up often forgotten tunes from field recordings like the Alan Lomax archives and transforming them with fresh new arrangements or performances.

His efforts on Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project (2015) and the follow-up Folklife (2017, both from Borealis) have won critical attention and wider audiences for bringing new life to these dusty old gems. But how does he find the right songs?

“Timeless songs are always relevant. As much as culture changes quickly, I think the basic building blocks of our lives stay pretty much the same: family, love and heartbreak, emotional experiences and spiritual yearnings, the need to connect, death, and all of those things that inspire people to sing. They can speak to us with the urgency of right now.”

Stone’s earliest recordings hinted at his insatiable appetite for seeking out sounds and song from around the world. His second release, the Juno award-winning Africa to Appalachia, was a collaboration with West African kora player Mansa Sissoko that traced the evolution of the banjo from Africa to the new world. But the fascinating part of his ‘cover material’ is how he reworks older tunes.

“I don’t know how not to do that,” he laughs. ”I’m no traditionalist and never have been. I love working with traditional music as a touchstone, and yet, we live in the modern day and I listen to so much music. I’m influenced by so many things and just endlessly curious about different sounds and textures and approaches and instrumentation, and I love cross-pollinating between the old and the new.”

Stone also loves working with people who straddle different scenes and styles, and he has a knack for making musical connections that’s reflected in the surprising cast of players and singers on the past two albums — artists from a wide swath of folk, blues and jazz backgrounds, and from both sides of the Canadian-American border.

Of course it’s not possible to take everyone on the road. His regular Folklife touring quartet performs for New Moon Folk Club this Friday, featuring Moira Smiley on accordion and piano, Sumaia Jackson on fiddle, Joe Phillips on bass, along with Stone’s banjo and everyone singing or taking turns on singing.

Jayme Stone brings his Folklife band to play for New Moon Folk Club Friday.

Alexandra Defurio / Supplied

“We started to focus on a lot of harmony singing and a Capella things with percussion, and I started to see the project as a launchpad for my own singing. It was kind of a slow awakening. I’ve always loved working with singers and creating a canvas and developing arrangements around the songs. Finally it came time to do more of the singing myself.”

As a sideline, Stone was approached by Facebook about three years ago to create brand new contributions for the social media network’s own in-house music library Facebook Sound Collection. That contribution now stands at an amazing 200 songs, created in collaboration with artists from all over the world.

My call to Stone’s mobile number found him all alone in a cabin in the woods, specifically a fully outfitted studio cabin that’s part of the Layton Artist’s Colony at the Banff Centre. He was there working on new songs for his next recording. From his description the album is set to take a dramatic new personal and musical direction.

“I try to come here once a year if I can, but in this case I gave myself a lot of space. Almost three years ago my brother passed away really suddenly. At first I just started writing, and eventually I was writing songs. I had a reason to write and I knew immediately that I wanted a whole new sonic and emotional landscape for it. So far I haven’t used any banjo on the record, and I mostly wrote for instruments that I didn’t know how to play.”

The album, titled A Wake, finds his new original songs filled out with synthesizers, electronic samples, acoustic and electric drums, along with a “whole new cast of people,” including Felicity Williams from Bahamas, and Jason Lindner who played keyboards on David Bowie’s final album Blackstar, among others. It will necessitate a completely different touring band when he releases the album next fall and contemplates touring.

“I just wanted to let go into a totally different space and be in unfamiliar territory. In the process I didn’t make any specific plans or talk about it to anyone for a few years. It took a while to find the voice of the album but I’m just now finishing it.”

He’s not sure if any of those new songs will be performed here in his upcoming show or not.

Jayme Stone’s Folklife plays New Moon Folk Club 7:30 p.m. Friday at St. Basil’s Cultural Centre (10819 71 Ave.). Tickets are $23 in advance from Tix on the Square (780-420-1757 or tixonthesquare.ca) or $27 at the door if available. Red Deer-based singer-songwriter Melody Stang opens.

Raga Mala local showcase

Edmonton’s Indian music community includes some excellent players, singers and dancers, including artists who immigrated from India or, more often in the next generation, were raised here by Indian parents. Every year the Raga Mala Society holds a concert to showcase local artists immersed in classical Indian music.

The four artists featured during Saturday’s annual concert include vocalist Raghav Vamaraju, Kaushik Sivaramakrishnan on violin, Bhuyash Neupane on tabla percussion, and Jacqueline Karathra performing traditional bharatanatyam dance.

The concert has an early start time of 6:30 p.m. in order to facilitate the society’s annual general meeting afterward. Tickets are $15, $10 for students and seniors, available online from the Raga Mala site. The concert happens at the Orange Hub (10045 156 St.).

Raga Mala’s season continues April 25 when Shashank Subramanyam leads a trio with violinist Akkarai Sornalatha, and Patri Satish Kumar on mridangam percussion. On June 6 it’s a special father and son affair with two great tabla drummers, Pandit Nayan Ghosh and Ishaan Ghosh, accompanied by Deepak Paramashivan on Sarangi.

For further details see the Raga Mala site.