Back in the 1980s, Burlington, Vt., musician Gordon Stone took on a banjo student by the name of Mike Gordon.
At the time, Stone was already making a name for himself on the local bluegrass scene with his virtuoso banjo and slide guitar playing. And Gordon was about to make a name for himself, too. He had just joined an up-and-coming band in the area as bassist.
“He said, ‘Oh, I’m starting a band,’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s nice,’ ” Stone said from his home in Waterbury, Vt.
“He took a few more banjo lessons — ‘Oh, we decided to call the band Phish, with a “P-h.” ’ I said, ‘OK . . . cool.’ He said ‘You’ve got to come down to Nectar’s and hear us.’ So I went, and I thought, eh, it’s OK; not bad, but not great. Then a year later they all were practicing — it was a year after they had first gotten together — and they were really great. They stuck with it, and it started to sound really good.”
The Gordon Stone Band, with special guests
When: 11 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Parting Glass, 40-42 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs
How Much: $5
More Info: 583-1916, www.partingglasspub.com
Phish fans know the rest of the story — Stone ended up playing on Phish’s 1991 album “A Picture of Nectar” and on 1993’s “Rift,” and also joined the band on the road for some early shows. He has continued playing with Gordon’s other projects, including solo work and his honky-tonk band Ramble Dove.
When Phish heads to Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Sunday, a reunion of sorts could be in the cards. Stone is scheduled to play the show’s after-party with his band, including bassist Jon McCartan and drummer Caleb Bronz, at the Parting Glass at 11 p.m. that night, along with some “special guests.” He has extended an invitation to Phish to join him at the Glass, and may also be with the band on stage at SPAC, but until the night of the show he can’t be certain what exactly will happen.
“That’d be great; that would really be fun, but a lot of times you don’t really know until the last minute,” Stone said.
First time in a while
If it does happen, it will be the first time Stone has played with Phish in its entirety in more than 10 years. But the jam band is far from Stone’s only claim to fame — in the past, he’s done session work for Arlo Guthrie, The Dave Matthews Band and Jimmy Buffett, to name a few.
His main project, however, is his instrumental solo career, which encompasses six studio albums showcasing his skills on everything from free-form jazz instrumentals to funk jams to straight-up rock ’n’ roll.
His latest album, “Night Shade,” which was recorded and released this year, finds Stone incorporating African rhythms into the mix with surprising results, such as on the slow-burning groove of “Snakehouse.”
The album’s closing track, “Kaki Lambe,” which translates to “Dance of the Devil Mask,” is a Senegalese groove with pedal steel improvisation by Stone and baritone sax by Eric Lawrence. But as Stone pointed out, although he hasn’t explored it much on his own solo albums, the idea of using African elements wasn’t entirely his own. “Years ago, I played in a local band called Zebra,” Stone said. “The leader of that band was Nigerian, and the music he wrote — he called it Afro-fusion — was kind of ahead of his time. He was playing that kind of stuff, writing stuff for American musicians and himself, so he was using banjo and pedal steel on tunes with African rhythms. . . . So the idea of using African drummers wasn’t really new to me; in this area in Vermont there’s a lot of Senegalese drummers.”
Elsewhere, the album tackles bluegrass and folk (“Jelly Cake Rag,” “Champ’s Reel”) and adds some new twists to standard jazz on a cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t.” Phish keyboardist Page McConnell even shows up, playing organ on the haunting title track.
Along with his usual banjo and pedal steel, Stone also plays the piano and for the first time on one of his solo albums, standard guitar. This isn’t too much of a stretch, as Stone’s first instrument was piano. In the 1970s, while studying jazz at Berklee School of Music, he learned to play guitar as well.
“I just went for like a year, and decided I didn’t like it,” Stone said. “I went to college for a while too, and didn’t really like that. I thought I’d like music school, but I didn’t like that either. So I moved to Vermont and played in a bluegrass band. It works.”
The album was recorded in April and May at Phish’s Barn studio in Vermont, and self-released shortly afterward. Stone usually records quickly to keep up with his songwriting, which is constantly moving from one idea to the next.
“I’ve seen so many artists, bands that keep working on a project, keep working, and a year later they’re still working on the same project, but by then they’ve written new tunes, they’re playing with new players, they have new ideas,” Stone said. “For me, I’m always growing and evolving musically.”