Ben Sollee was 9 years old when he started taking lessons on the cello, in his Kentucky hometown. Then, as now, the standard student discipline for the instrument was classical music. He studied hard, learned to read and learned about technique.
"My dad was an R&B guitarist and my mom sang, and my grandfather was an Appalachian fiddler," Sollee says. "So when I would go home, we'd play Appalachian fiddle tunes. So I had this kind of dual life. Those two things fed into each other, and I just kept doing that."
In college, he played the classics, but also made time to tour with blues bands and bluegrass ensembles. "As I played with people, I would learn the techniques they used to back up other musicians, put ‘em on the cello, and learn how to solo, and just keep that social aspect of music. Because that's really where there's a lot of cross-pollination."
Collaboration, Sollee believes, is key to keeping music fresh and vital. He's all about breaking down barriers.
Like Bela Fleck with his banjo, or Edgar Meyer with his standup bass, Ben Sollee is taking his instrument in bold new directions. He not only bows the cello, he plucks it like a bass, strums chords like a guitar, and makes it rattle and hum like a percussion instrument.
He's also a vocalist - and a pretty good one - so his music isn't limited to strict instrumentals. His finely-etched songs combine elements of folk, R&B, jazz, bluegrass and yes, classical music.
Sollee and dummer/co-vocalist Jordan Ellis perform Saturday, Sept. 3, in a Savannah Stopover-produced show at the Forsyth Park Bandshell. Cheyenne Marie Mize, who co-wrote one of the songs on Sollee's new album Inclusions, will open the performance (and sing a bit with Sollee, too). Savannah's General Oglethorpe & the Pandhandlers have also been scheduled.
He worked with Fleck, the acknowledged master of musical mash-ups, as a member of Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet (they played the Savannah Music Festival in 2008).
"Bela always talks about the point that he decided ‘All the notes are on the banjo - I just have to go find them,'" says Sollee. "I think that's a pretty amazing realization, but I never had that on the cello. I never had anybody telling me the cello didn't have all that. And I guess I already knew all the notes because I was practicing them in ensembles. The cello was always an open platform to me.
"Everything I had emotionally, everything I had physically, I could always bring it to the cello and it always gave something back."
Saturday's concert in the park comes at the tail end of the Midnight Garden Ride, a city-wide, non-competitive bicycle marathon.
Sollee and his crew are coming to Savannah in a van. The last time he played here, in 2009, he arrived by cargo bicycle - a specially built Xtracycle to which he strapped his cello, gear and supplies.
"The bike tours have always been a way to get away from the very specific, very high-intensity pace of the road," explains Sollee. "Traveling in vans, where you're driving through the night to the next gig. Or flying in airplanes from one festival to another. The pace of that kind of thing is just super-human to me. I didn't really take to it very well.
"The bicycle was offering this escape, this limitation: I could only go so fast, I could only go so far. So by using the bicycle I could just be at each place, in a better way and a slower way."
He enjoyed visiting with people in smaller towns. And because he is an arch environmentalist, he enjoyed the knowledge that his bike sojourn wouldn't do something nasty to the air.
Not that it was easy, mind you. "The first tour, I hadn't trained or prepared myself at all," he says. "It was kind of an experiment in my mind. I loved riding my bicycle, but never rode it very far. But I just figured you should be able to get on your bicycle, with your stuff, and ride.
"Now, I wasn't quite as hip to terrain on that first tour, from Lexington down to Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee. There's a lot of hills and mountains."
Eating and drinking correctly, and keeping a sane pace, he finally figured out how to make the exercise work. "I would ride through that four- or five-day barrier," he adds, "when your body gets real worn out, and then something switches on and you just go."
There's another bike tour in the works - later this year, Sollee, Ellis and several others are planning to travel from Baton Rogue to Orlando.
For now, though, the guys are in standard travel mode. The Inclusions tour, through mid-October, will take them as far north as Indiana and Michigan.
As for the distant future, who knows? There will, no doubt, be more cross-pollination, with more artists and more instruments. The possibilities are endless.
Collaboration, Sollee says, is "good for my musical health, in that philosophical way that if we take care of ourselves, we can better take care of others.
"But there is a more conceptual part, where I want to expose the cello in more and more elements. I want young people, adults, everybody to begin to think of the cello as an instrument that you can throw on your back and take with you to jams.
"And it's happening. People are beginning to think ‘Hey, I play this instrument, and it can make all these sounds. I should be able to use it in all the different varieties of music that are out there.'"
With Cheyenne Marie Mize
Where: Forsyth Park Bandshell
When: At 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3
Artist's website: bensollee.com
Reserved seating: Several round tables are available, between the fountain and the grass; cost is $25 per seat, or $150 for a table of eight. Reservations at savannahstopover.com
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