In deciding on the focus of his next recording project, Ben Sollee sought input from promoters and fans who have closely followed his music over the past decade, from his collaborative work with Sparrow Quartet and Daniel Martin Moore to the numerous works under his own name that have emphasized new folk and pop voices for his instrument of choice: the cello.
The reply from them was clear: They wanted the Louisville-based, Lexington-reared Sollee to come home.
“I always have my hands in totally different type of projects: ballets, theater works, film scores, virtual reality and, of course, music and albums,” Sollee said. “So when it comes time to make a record, I’ve got so many ideas that I want to pursue. Sometimes I’ll just talk with promoters that I trust and fans that I trust. They’ll be like, ‘Well, any chance you and the Sparrow Quartet will get back together? Any chance you’ll get back together with Daniel Martin Moore?’
“I just kind of gauge people’s interests, and people seem to be interested in hearing a little bit more of the acoustic string-band music that I came from. Those are my roots, of course, in my career and as a sideman. So I think this was a response to that, a return to my roots here in Kentucky. I took the opportunity to try to tell the story of being a musician and a composer in a state that has a long history of mixing and mashing together different cultures and sounds and just tried to continue to practice the Bluegrass music.”
I took the opportunity to try to tell the story of being a musician and a composer in a state that has a long history of mixing and mashing together different cultures and sounds.
With that in mind, Sollee had to center on a band. First in was Frankfort-based percussionist Jordan Ellis, a mainstay of Sollee’s music. Then Sollee looked outward and called on a few high-profile pals for recommendations.
“It was a pursuit of mine to assemble a group of musicians that had qualities and characteristics of being really open collaborators. I experimented with a few different musicians in and around Kentucky and beyond, then I called a lot of my musical heroes like Bela (Fleck, with whom Sollee has worked in Sparrow Quartet) and (violinist) Darol Anger and found Bennett Sullivan, who lives up in Brooklyn, New York. He had just been on Broadway playing in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s show ‘Bright Star.’ I love his playing, because he has the ability to play traditional bluegrass tunes right on point but also listens to bebop jazz solos and is willing to try new things.
“It took a while to find the right fiddle player. Darol recommended one of his students at Berklee (College of Music) by the name of Julian Pinelli. He came into the sessions with an ability to slip in and out of styles on the fiddle that was pretty remarkable.”
With the assembled band, now called Kentucky Native, Sollee hit the studio ... in the woods. Instead of recording in the midst of modern technology, the group retreated to Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Bullitt County, bunked together in a cabin and worked in a makeshift studio.
“Bernheim has pulled me in on a number of their arts-and-nature type projects. They have these houses that don’t get used very often, so we asked them if we could record there, and they immediately said yes. That was the right way to go. But I think the context and the setting of being in a cabin together, bunking up in that place together, cooking every meal with each other, having the music on and just kind of hanging out made a big difference.”
The resulting album, “Ben Sollee and Kentucky Native,” hits stores Friday. The band will take to the road through September to promote its new music before a far bigger project for Sollee celebrates a release: the birth of his second child.
“I’ve got a little girl on the way in October, so my son, Oliver, will have a little sister with about a 10-year spread between them,” Sollee says. “We’re going to hit the road really hard in September. Then I’m going to take off about six weeks to be home with the baby. That’s going to be a huge change. That’s going to be a big inspiration. And that’s enough for me right now.”