April 4, 2006

You’ve never heard this before: Ben Sollee claws the cello into a folk instrument

The cello is not an instrument people are used to hearing as a solo instrument. Ben Sollee is on a one-man crusade to change the cello’s image and give the instrument the recognition he thinks it deserves. “When you think of cello, you think of an orchestra or maybe a small chamber group,” Sollee said. “I’m just trying to get the cello out to lots of different styles . It’s been limited by a very elite classical thing, and I’m trying to expand it.”His new record, Turn on the Moon, which will be released this Saturday at his performance at The Rudyard Kipling, is strong evidence that Sollee is succeeding. Sollee plays every instrument on the album, almost all of which are one form of cello or another, whether acoustic, electric or acoustic played through amplifiers. It is important to note that Sollee does not frequently use a bow in the style that is frequently attributed to cello players. There are occasional appearances of bow sounds, but the predominant style used is more a mix of claw-hammer banjo style, folk and blues finger-picking, country walking bass and jazz slap-bass.“My dad’s a guitar player, like R&B and stuff like that. I started learning tunes by ear, and my dad would show me old tunes like ‘Stand By Me,’ or I would play some bluegrass with my grandfather, who is an Appalachian fiddler. I guess my vernacular was not classical, so I learned to play in other ways,” he explained. With such a musically talented yet completely diverse family tree, it’s no wonder that Sollee is so innovative. And nowhere does this skill as an innovator show through more clearly than in the nine tracks that make up Turn on the Moon. Sollee uses his unique style of playing in the way that any guitar-slinging singer-songwriter would, drawing the listener in to hear his stories, which range from songs about America’s obsession with automobiles (“Bury Me With My Car”) to a heart-wrenching spoken word story about brave Polish soldiers at the beginning of World War II (“Poland, 1939”). Also, there is an amazing — and quite different — cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”Sollee will graduate from the University of Louisville’s School of Music soon, and already he has a great start on a long career in the music world. In addition to his own music, he has played folk music with Abigail Washburn and blues with Otis Taylor, and performs regularly on Lexington’s “Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour.” With all this performance experience under his belt and a brand new record, there is no doubt that we’ll be hearing a lot more from Ben Sollee in the future.Skill as an improviser is a sign of true artistic ability. It’s respected in almost every form of art, but nowhere is it held in such high regard as in the two otherwise entirely different worlds of jazz and comedy. Todd Hildreth, most commonly known in the area for his work with the Java Men, noticed the connection. Hildreth is the man to be held responsible for what the Jazz Factory is referring to as “Monkey Business with the Louisville Improvisors.” The idea is a little strange, but simple. “Basically, a few months ago I had gotten the idea about new musical soundtracks to existing films. And it occurred to me that it would be kind of fun to find some people who were interested in improvising and doing dialogue to an existing film,” Hildreth said. The Louisville Improvisors were the logical choice. They decided they would have a movie projected with the sound turned off, with Hildreth providing the music and the Improvisers offering the dialogue.After the film, if time allows, the Improvisors will perform their popular brand of improv comedy, with Hildreth doing the music.“I’m essentially a fourth member,” Hildreth said.Tomorrow marks the first installment of what Hildreth and the Improvisors plan as a continuing program. “In terms of regular, I don’t know how regular, but it is certainly something we’re going to continue to do.” Critically acclaimed fiddler Michael Cleveland, who is blind, will be performing at the American Printing House for the Blind this Saturday as a part of the Callahan Museum’s Bards and Storytellers series. The show is free, but space is extremely limited and the reservation deadline is today.  Contact the writer at leobeat@leoweekly.com