Cellist Ben Sollee takes Aspen stage
ASPEN – Like a lot of kids, Ben Sollee heard an instrument played in a certain way and thought, “Cool – won’t that get under people’s skin.”But most kids have, historically, had such thoughts regarding an electric guitar or maybe a drum kit. For Sollee, it was a cello. He was a 9-year-old in a public school music class and the instructor was educating the class in the instruments of the orchestra. She got to the cello, played it clumsily, and something resonated with Sollee.”When the teachers showed us all the instruments, paraded them, the teacher tried to bow it, getting all these scratchy sounds,” Sollee recalled. “I was into that as a third-grader – there were all kinds of funky noises I could make to be annoying.”The cello has gone through some fairly interesting developments in recent times. Yo-Yo Ma, the most recognizable face in classical music, has occasionally teamed with pickers from the string-band world to make folk-oriented sounds. Alisa Weilerstein, a former Aspen Music Festival student and winner last year of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, has been pushing the cello repertoire outward by embarking on adventurous projects with young, alternative-thinking composers. Rushad Eggleston has added his eccentric energy to groups like Republic of Strings and Crooked Still to stretch the outer bounds of acoustic music; Eggleston now plays electric cello in the band he leads, Tornado Rider. Erik Friedlander has released a series of albums that make the cello a viable jazz instrument. And young mandolin sensation Sarah Jarosz has charted her own course by, in part, bringing a progressive cellist, Nathan Smith, into her trio.Even by these standards, Sollee is doing funky things with the cello. Sollee’s latest album, “Half Made Man,” released in September, doesn’t expand the classical template. And it’s not string-band music, nor closely related to bluegrass or old-timey music in any way. “Half Made Man” is song-oriented rock, a bit edgy with drums and electric guitar surrounding Sollee’s cello. One song, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” made me double check to make sure I wasn’t listening to the new album by Laurel Canyon rockers Dawes. “The Healer” borrows from old rock ‘n’ roll and showcases Sollee’s abilities as a vocalist.”I never felt I was doing anything innovative or unique,” said Sollee, whose gig Friday at Belly Up Aspen will have him accompanied by Jordan Ellis, who plays percussion and analog synthesizer, and Luke Reynolds, who switches between bass and guitar. (Sollee himself moves between cello and octave mandolin.) “I was playing cello in the way people played guitar or mandolin or banjo, just playing the music that was around me, rather than the music the cello was supposed to play.” Sollee was raised in the bluegrass state of Lexington, Ky., where he broke out his cello to play regionally appropriate fiddle tunes, like “Faded Love” and “Five Miles From Town,” with his grandfather. But his parents were lovers of r&b, and his father, a guitarist, played songs like “Stand By Me” and “Walk on By” with Sollee.”I always had two lives on cello,” Sollee, now 28, said while driving through the Texas hill country. “There was the institution, school life, where I’d go and study the classical repertoire. Then I had my social life – playing r&b with my folks, old-time tunes with my granddad. The cello was just good at doing all that stuff. I’ve always had fun with it, just hanging out, playing music with people.”While it was the scratchy sound that first attracted him to the instrument, what Sollee has discovered is that a potentially grating sound is just one of the cello’s many appealing facets. “Cello was the instrument I really studied and grew with because it’s such a versatile instrument,” he said. “You can do a lot with it – harmony; it’s got a big melodic range, a lot of rhythmic possibilities. It’s the Swiss Army knife of the orchestra: You’ve got the knife and the scissors.”Sollee dug into the traditional use of the cello, as a classical instrument, at the University of Louisville, where he earned a degree in classical performance. Around graduation time, a friend introduced him to Abigail Washburn, a singer and banjoist with an interest in American gospel and blues and Chinese folk music. Washburn was looking for a cellist to collaborate with, and she and Sollee began doing duet gigs. That grew into Sparrow Quartet, a combo that included banjo master Bla Fleck (who is now Washburn’s husband) and violinist Casey Dreissen. Sparrow Quartet did a few tours of China and played around the U.S., including one memorable gig, in 2009, at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House.Sollee has been pushing at all corners of the music realm. His debut album, “Learning to Bend,” touched on jazz, country, folk, singer-songwriter rock and, with a drastic reworking of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” soul. The album landed him on the list of Top Ten Unknown Artists compiled by NPR’s “Morning Edition.” He contributed to My Morning Jacket’s 2011 album “Circuital,” and occasionally performs with the rock band.While he has been expanding his musical expression, Sollee has also been revealing his sociopolitical leanings. “A Few Honest Words,” a song from “Learning to Bend,” took a solid jab at George W. Bush. The exceptional 2010 album “Dear Companion,” a collaboration with fellow Kentuckians Jim James, of My Morning Jacket, who produced the album, and singer-songwriter-guitarist Daniel Martin Moore, was an environmentally conscious song cycle inspired by the subject of mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia. Sales proceeds from the album went to Appalachian Voices, a group that promotes awareness of issues in the region. Sollee has been known to show his support for environmental causes by swapping a tour bus for a tour bike, cycling from gig to gig.”Half Made Man” is focused more on the inside world than the outside. Sollee calls the album a learning process. “Before, it was me orchestrating and arranging and overdubbing. This gets me in the studio, gets me creating with other musicians,” said Sollee, who is joined on the album by My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel and former Turtle Island String Quartet violinist Jeremy Kittel, with Washburn on some backing vocals.Lyrically, “Half Made Man” has a consistent theme of personal self-assessment. “At 28, I wanted to document various parts of my personality, capture them,” Sollee said. “The Healer” is about “the part of my personality that’s always trying to fix things, that co-dependent aspect of me.” “Get Off Your Knees,” he added, was about his impatience.••••Sollee understands some of the limitations that have been imposed on the cello. Not every cellist would care to strap their instrument to a bike and lug it through the crowds of the Bonnaroo Festival, as Sollee did in 2009. “Part of it is logistical and technical – it’s expensive. It’s hard to take a cello to a festival, or to play in a rock club with drums,” he said.But some of the limitations are ready to be exploded. “Part of it is cultural – people associate cellos with certain sounds and songs,” he said. “There’s a disconnect between where people are supposed to take cellos” and what the instrument is capable of.Sollee never pursued an orchestra position after college. As he explained why, it became clear that Sollee probably could have taken any instrument and found novel, even radical ways to use it. He’s got a bit of the rebel in him, and as a musician, he was inevitably going to find his own means of expression.”I didn’t like the social structure of orchestras,” he said. “It’s kind of silly, the way people define their boundaries, put limits on the music. In orchestras, it’s certain people have to sit here, other people sit there. It’s not about the balance of sound, it’s much more about making everybody happy. One had to be considerate of all that social stuff. I was never interested in that. The orchestra was no place to study to cello for me. I want to have fun playing with other people.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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