Like so many musicians enamored by American folk music, an encompassing umbrella that covers an intertwined thicket of traditions and styles, banjo master Jayme Stone came under the sway of the tireless musical sleuth Alan Lomax.
The pioneering ethnomusicologist spent nearly seven decades traveling the globe to make field recordings, documenting the music of everyday life. Lomax was particularly active in capturing the sounds of the United States, and he was there in spirit to help guide Stone’s first musical explorations.
“I read Lomax’s memoir ‘The Land Where the Blues Began’ when I first started playing banjo 22 years ago,” says Stone, who performs with his Lomax-inspired quartet Folklife May 31 at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley and June 1 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz.
“I used to send away for his Smithsonian/Folkways recordings, when they would spin you a cassette from the original reels. I love that process of discovery.”
The Toronto-born Stone started another creative journey with Lomax a few years ago while reading John Szwed’s acclaimed 2011 biography “Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World.” Determined to follow the musicologist’s adventures by listening to the field recordings he collected on his travels, Stone was able to take advantage of the newly digitized Lomax archive (where you can now find some 17 thousand audio files, http://research.culturalequity.org).
Inspired by Bahamian sea chanties, Gullah a cappella pieces from the Georgia Sea Islands, spooky old-time Appalachian ballads, work songs and fiddle tunes, he recruited an all-star cast of collaborators to reimagine a diverse program of songs and instrumentals. Captured on “Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project” (Borealis Recording), the 2015 album features Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Margaret Glaspy, Moira Smiley, and Bay Area-bred Brittany Haas and Julian Lage.
“I gathered together some of my favorite acoustic musicians to put our own stamp on all of this amazing music,” says Stone from his home near Boulder, Colo. “It’s been an interesting evolution. The first few years were about the magical chemistry of these fleeting constellations. But after a while I was longing for the intimacy and connection of a regular group.”
His new album “Folklife” (Borealis Recording) reflects Stone’s desire for a working ensemble while following a similar road map, with new arrangements of songs gleaned from Lomax field recordings. The West Coast tour features two of the album’s core players — well-traveled vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Moira Smiley and rising fiddler Sumaia Jackson — and a prodigious ringer, Northern California fiddler and cellist Tristan Clarridge.
“Tristan is one of my very favorite musicians in the world,” Stone says. “Oftentimes when we play on the West Coast we rope him in. He can play the bass role, but he’s a total rhythmic and melodic powerhouse.”
A five-time Grand National Fiddle champion and a cellist who’s influenced a generation of players with his command of folk idioms, jazz and pop, Clarridge toured and recorded with Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings as a teenager and went on to work with the seminal newgrass band Crooked Still before launching the Bee Eaters with his sister, the similarly brilliant fiddler Tashina Clarridge. Together they run the Shasta String Summit, a summer program that changed Sumaia Jackson’s musical course.
Now based in Nashville, Jackson grew up in Santa Cruz and studied at Alasdair Fraser’s Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle School. It was while attending the Clarridges’ Shasta camp that she connected with leading players on the creatively charged Boston acoustic music scene, encounters that sparked her interest in improvisation.
A standout at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Jackson got a call from Stone while she was in her junior year, after Lomax Project fiddler Brittany Haas landed a gig with Gillian Welch and wasn’t available for many Folklife gigs.
“I called all of the teachers in Berklee’s American Roots Music program, Darol Anger, Bruce Molsky, Casey Driessen, and everyone recommended Sumaia,” Stone says. “She may be the first musician I’ve ever worked with sight unseen, and she turned out to be perfect, a great singer and a sweetheart.”
Jackson has thrown herself into the Folklife process, which starts with close listening to Lomax recordings and ends with the inexplicable group alchemy that transform the initial song seed into a strikingly new hybrid. For instance, at one rehearsal Smiley brought in a Caribbean-tinged square dance song sung by Shirley Collins that Lomax recorded in London in 1955, “Hey, Lally Lally Lo,” which ended up on the album set to a slow and insinuating jazzy groove.
“We listen to the original a lot to and take what we want and what we can,” Jackson says. “It’s not like we’re trying to copy arrangements. We just take it these people have the skeletons of incredible songs, and it’s so fun see what we can come up with. It’s always a process, and every time we play them is different.”