Thursday, July 12, 2007

Grey Fox Cellists: Ben Sollee

Ben Sollee played at last year's Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in the Masters (small workshop) Tent with Abigail Washburn and an unnamed group most of which is now the Sparrow Quartet. He seemed quiet, playing a calm and soothing background cello. At the time, he was the only member of the group that hadn't played in China the previous year.

At 22, he had just graduated from college with a degree in cello performance. This past year, he did go to China and Tibet. And this year, he is playing on the main stage with the Sparrow Quartet, which includes banjo player extraordinaire Bela Fleck, innovative fiddler Casey Driessen, and multi-talented Abigail Washburn, vocalist, banjo-player, and the reason why everyone went to China and Tibet.

My husband and daughter saw Abigail Washburn perform the first year we went to Grey Fox. I was off somewhere watching something else. They were so impressed with her all-woman band, Uncle Earl, that they bought the CD for me (even though there were no cellos in it!). Abigail still plays with Uncle Earl (they will be at Grey Fox this year too), but her focus seems to be more on the Sparrow Quartet this year, which I am looking forward to hearing, not only because there is a cellist in the band, but because I find the Chinese connection interesting. Abigail studied for a time in China and was inspired by Chinese traditional music to explore her own U.S. folk music heritage, and the group toured China and performs music from both traditions.

Not the greatest video quality, but a good performance by the Sparrow Quartet in China. Abigail sings in Chinese.

More videos on the Sparrow Quartet and the Chinese connection:

This video introduces the Sparrow Quartet and shows them jamming with a Mongolian folk band based in Beijing.

This video is a preview of documentary of the Sparrow Quartet in China and Tibet.

I bought Ben Sollee's solo CD, Turn on the Moon, last year at Grey Fox. He sings and plays the cello and writes his own music. I don't really know what musical genre it is. Let's say alternative folk rock. The only song on the CD that he did not write was written by Prince. Kind of mournful and rambling. While I really admire anyone who can sing and play the cello at the same time, as well as write his own music, I can't say I am a fan of this particular CD. I enjoy his melodic cello playing, but the singing and the rhythmic cello playing (perhaps he is tapping on the cello?), not so much. One tune, "Bury me with my Car," is a nice statement on contemporary culture. He is a talented and creative cellist, but this is not my kind of music. Perhaps it is a generation gap, or a gap of a couple of generations. You might like it!

I do enjoy his cello playing in the Sparrow Quartet, being predisposed toward folk/bluegrass/improvisational ensembles with cellists. There just aren't very many bands around with a vocalist, two banjos, a violin, and a cello. I wonder why Abigail chose this particular group of instruments/players. I have found no explanation. It's a unique group with an appealing multicultural sound, and one of the groups I am most looking forward to seeing, along with Uncle Earl.

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