Vermont musical icon and jam-band hero Gordon Stone shows his stuff on his sixth “solo” CD, Night Shade. It is telling that this is the first release in Stone’s extensive discography in which the artist bills himself simply as “Gordon Stone” and not the Gordon Stone Trio or the Gordon Stone Band. Stone unquestionably puts himself at the center of the musical action here: trading Hammond B-3 and pedal-steel licks with Phish keyboard master Page McConnell on the title track, cooking up the jazzy theme to an imaginary psychedelic Western, doing a “Soul Makossa” thing with a phalanx of African drummers, and soaring like David Lindley over a Keith Richards rock-guitar riff on “Stone’s Throw.”
For those who only know Stone as a Phish session man or a regular at Bonnaroo, Night Shade will be enlightening. All but one of the album’s 10 tracks are originals. And each demonstrates why the multitalented Stone deserves the numerous accolades he’s garnered for musical excellence over his career.
The unaccompanied banjo gem “Jelly Rag” showcases Stone’s impeccable technique and the classical-grass style he introduced back in the 1970s. And his funky take on Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t,” as well as the reimagining of “Scratching the Surface” — the title track from a 1995 effort — serve as potent reminders that he was one of a handful of visionaries responsible for the invention of jazz-grass banjo. While Stone is backed by a cadre of talented musicians, the moments when his steel and banjo are mixed way out front are true sonic pleasures.
Stone’s fruitful relationship with the members of Phish has yielded another, albeit subtler, benefit. Night Shade was recorded in the band’s legendary Chittenden County recording studio, the Barn. The retrofitted structure’s old wooden walls provide an earthy aesthetic, contrasted by cutting-edge digital recording technology. But on this disc, the room sound and equipment don’t stand out — it all just sounds good.
Night Shade’s final track, “Kaki Lambe,” is as mysterious and edgy as “Jelly Cake Rag” is warm and accessible. Senegalese polyrhythms, space-station pedal steel and squawking sax riffs float through the piece. A cold ending leaves you teetering on the brink. Of what? Beats me. Guess we’ll have to wait ’til the next album to find out.