Ben Sollee and the Cello. Who knew?!
(The following is copied from my blog, sideatrack1.com. If you’d like to hear the tracks, please drop by.)
Seriously, who doesn’t love the cello? One of very few instruments that somehow manage to have a majestic yet intimate quality, the cello just makes me feel…good. Its timbre is as unmistakable as its resonance is deep. While most people inevitably associate the cello to Classical music and in turn to one of its most popular figures, Yo-Yo Ma, it’s actually quite satisfying to hear it used in other genres. Admittedly, Yo-Yo Ma himself has a long history of incorporating it in his genre-bending albums, but I had never heard it featured in popular music until I came across Ben Sollee’s Learning to Bend album from 2008. Despite what may seem like a handicap, he seamlessly blended Americana, Jazz and even a hint of R&B (the real kind, of course).
A few years ago, I attended a concert at one of my favorite venues in Chicago, The Old Town School of Folk Music, and was completely mesmerized by the opening act, Abigail Washburn (also a member of Uncle Earl, whose Waterloo, Tennessee album is one of the best contemporary old-time country/bluegrass albums in recent years). It was through her incredible debut solo album, Song of the Traveling Daughter, that I first heard of Sollee. While his cello is heard on every song, I was too transfixed by Washburn’s voice and banjo (or maybe it was the occasional bluegrass song she sang in Mandarin…) to give any further thought to Sollee himself. He later joined Washburn’s Sparrow Quartet band, alongside Bela Fleck and Casey Driessen.
Learning to Bend was released a few months later and it immediately became one of my favorite albums of the year. The combination of unique instrumentation, earnest lyrics and soulful delivery demanded repeated listening – and I complied.
A few honest words, Ben Sollee. A plaintive, almost meditative plea for politicians (and probably Bush in particular) to be…real. The plucked cello and dirge-like fiddle set the perfect atmosphere. One of my favorite tracks from 2008.
How to see the sun rise, Ben Sollee. Jazz- and Soul-influenced, Sollee urges a former lover to give him a second chance and teach him how to…
hold a bird in my hand and watch it grow
See those feathers bloom
But don’t let it fly
Even though that’s what it’s supposed to do
It’s not impossible, Ben Sollee. While the lyrics lament societal expectations for boys to not cry, what initially grabbed my attention was the lively instrumentation straight out of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (minus Wooten’s driving bass).
The entire album is wonderful, and it was just released on vinyl – so get it!
I also highly recommend Abigail Washburn’s beautiful Song of the Traveling Daughter album.
Sometimes, Abigail Washburn.