It seems that behind every good jam band is a great banjo player with whom they can take such traditional American music as bluegrass and jazz into new directions. The Grateful Dead, particularly Jerry Garcia, had David Grisman. Dave Matthews Band has Bela Fleck. And Phish has Gordon Stone, a former fellow Burlington, Vermont-based musician who has lent his picking to A Picture of Nectar and Rift. He also has given Phish bassist Mike Gordon banjo lessons.
But before he recently moved to Central Massachusetts, the Connecticut native had been exploring new directions with the banjo since the early 1970s in Burlington, both as a solo artist and with such excellent bands as the contemporary bluegrass unit Breakaway and the Afro-fusion group Zzebra. Then in 1995, the Gordon Stone Trio, featuring mandolinist Jamie Masefield and bassist Stacy Starkweather of the Jazz Mandolin Project, another Burlington act close to Phish, was formed. But rather than record with the just the trio, Stone recorded with an octet that included Mike Gordon. The eclectic Touch and Go was a long-awaited follow-up to Stone’s 1981 solo debut Scratchin’ the Surface.
Eventually the trio expanded into The Gordon Stone Band, which recently released “Even with the Odds.” The disc continues Stone’s banjo journey into new directions, combining the African, Caribbean and Latin rhythms he picked up with Zzebra with everything from funk and jazz to Celtic and bluegrass. While passing through New York with his band — bassist Aaron Germain, guitarist Josh Stacy and drummer Russ Lawton — I caught up with Stone to discuss his musical travels of past, present and future, including his score to the forthcoming independent film Mud Season, which was shot in Burlington last year.
BM: How did you gravitate to the banjo?
GS: I started playing the banjo when I was 13. I liked the sound of Earl Scruggs’ style of banjo playing. It was during the folk revival, so my older brother and a lot of his friends were listening to the Kingston Trio. That was cool, but somehow I heard Earl Scruggs and thought that was a lot more exciting. I studied classical piano before that, then picked up the guitar and started playing rock ‘n’ roll.
BM: What brought you to Burlington and how did that affect your bluegrass direction?
GS: My interest in bluegrass was always there. I always played banjo. I went to the Berklee School of Music for a semester and studied jazz guitar. I liked Vermont and moved up there and met some other bluegrass players. We started a band in the early ’70s. I had just been bouncing around, band to band, because there was a resurgence in the ’70s, so it was big. Then it died out in the ’80s and got big again in the ’90s.
BM: As Mike Gordon’s banjo teacher, comment on the bluegrass influence you’ve had on Phish.
GS: Yeah, they used to hear Breakaway in Burlington. Mike was interested in bluegrass. He wanted to learn more about it, so he used to come down to hear us. I think it had some influence on some of the material they’re doing. It’s stuff that we were playing, but they may have gotten it from the same places we did.
BM: You played in a charitable side project with Mike called The Drop Caps. Any chance of doing that again?
GS: I’d like to see if we could get Mike interested in doing that again. There’s no plans, but it would be fun.
BM: Comment on how the jazzy, improvisational nature of bluegrass works well with jam bands.
GS: The evolution of jam bands, like even the Allman Brothers and the Dead and earlier jam bands, seems to draw from rural, Southern, traditional music. Blues and bluegrass are incorporated into their rock ‘n’ roll style of playing. The trend has continued. The fact that Garcia was into bluegrass had a lot to do with bluegrass being popular, even with guys like Phish who got into bluegrass. So the earlier incarnations of bands, like Old and in the Way with David Grisman and Garcia, turned on Phish’s whole generation. Some went back to the roots to discover Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs. Some went into the jam band thing and groove on what Phish is doing, like String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon.
BM: Jazz is a big influence on you. ‘Duck500’ is a very jazzy tune.
GS: That was co-written with Josh Stacy, whose roots are in jazz. He was only into jazz when he joined the band and just learning the bluegrass thing. That opening guitar part is his composition. The other sections of the piece that go into other parts were my contribution. The pairing of bluegrass and jazz is not new anymore. Bill Keith is really one of the earliest banjo players to do that in the early ’70s, before Bela (Fleck), Tony Trischka and I came along. He was playing (Duke Ellington’s) ‘Caravan’ and doing some interesting jazz pieces on banjo. So in a sense, I followed that and took it further into different directions. But rhythmically, we use the influences of jazz and bluegrass.
BM: Comment on how you make the banjo work in a variety of unexpected musical styles, such as reggae and Latin.
GS: Latin and African rhythms also are used in jazz. They make the same syncopated rhythms. Free-finger picking on the banjo has that naturally syncopated feel. That’s what gives bluegrass an interesting quality, that syncopation. Those syncopations also are found in Latin and African music too. So that style of picking lends itself easily to third world rhythms.
When you get right down to it, the rhythmic roots going on in bluegrass and in African pieces have more similarities than we think. Bluegrass, which is considered traditional American music, actually came from other traditional forms, like the British Isles influence on people moving into Appalachia. Bill Monroe, from there, took those influences and used black gospel and black blues influences. That’s what created bluegrass in the first place. A new tradition is born.
That’s what’s going on with jam bands, building new traditions, using the influences we have. That’s something that Bela once mentioned. Tony Trischka, Bill Keith and him are all Northern banjo players who didn’t grow up with Southern traditions. They grew up listening to jazz players, like Thelonious Monk, and rock ‘n’ roll and whatever else, like classical. So it’s natural to evolve into that direction rather than the American traditional bluegrass form. It’s natural for us to move into new directions.
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