Sparrow Quartet: Chinese-Appalachian-gospel-blues music | AspenTimes.com
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Sparrow Quartet: Chinese-Appalachian-gospel-blues music

Stewart OskenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesAbigail Washburn led her Sparrow Quartet, with Bla Fleck, left, and Ben Sollee, to their Aspen debut Saturday night at the Wheeler Opera House.
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ASPEN In her Sparrow Quartet, which had its local debut Saturday night at the Wheeler Opera House, Abigail Washburn fluidly mixes Chinese folk styles into Appalachian string music with some gospel, blues and ragtime thrown in for kicks. The 29-year-old Washburn, who plays the pre-bluegrass clawhammer style of banjo, sings in both English and Chinese.It’s an expansive, global musical reach and it doesn’t necessarily make Washburn any more adventurous than her three bandmates. Washburn has a whispy but interesting, and of course, far-ranging voice, and is capable of holding a note about forever. She is a decent banjo picker. But her greatest achievement might be assembling her sidemen in the Sparrow Quartet: Cellist Ben Sollee, fiddler Casey Driessen, and her boyfriend and fellow banjost Bla Fleck, who has already redefined the possibilities and perception of the banjo in a series of bands, most notably the bluegrass-jazz fusion band, Bla Fleck & the Flecktones.Sollee is on a similar path of expanding the boundaries of his instrument. Playing an original song probably titled “Bury Me with My Car” Sollee strummed his cello like a guitar, making it a suitable, if unusual, accompaniment for his voice. Much of the time, he held down the low-end typically played by the bass. And Sollee showed a jazzman’s sense of harmony and structure each time he got to solo.Driessen specialized not so much in charting new ground, but in covering so much old territory so well. His playing touched on bluegrass, ’20s ragtime, old-timey Appalachian music and blues.Fleck is harder to nail down, as he has created a language of his own on his instrument. His spotlight solo piece embodied classical and jazz, with touches of Vaudevillian humor to boot. The best was to describe it: dazzling, untouchable, ground-breaking.Back to Wasburn. She should be given credit as the visionary of this music formally, the group goes by Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet and that might be the most tremendous credit of all. The foursome functions not so much as a blender into which are tossed various styles, but as something entirely new, and extraordinary. Somewhere, sometime probably in a Telluride parking lot, or on a Tennessee porch, late at night a quartet has been made up of two banjos, cello and fiddle. But it surely never had the overall skill and musical vision of the Sparrow Quartet. On Saturday night, the group reminded me more than anything not of a wildly ambitious bluegrass band, but of the Kronos Quartet the avant-garde contemporary string group that has made its reputation by seeking out sounds from all corners of the globe. The Sparrow Quartet’s version of the old spiritual “Strange Things Happen Every Day” became something way beyond gospel thrilling, new and close to the edge.Wouldn’t it figure that four such imaginative musical personalities cannot be nailed down to the same vision? The Sparrow Quartet, magnificent as its players are, is headed toward the end of its line. The group has just four gigs left on its schedule before the members chase down other musical dreams. The Wheeler audience should consider itself fortunate that we got this one in under the wire.stewart@aspentimes.com


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