Tom Mank & Sera Jane Smolen
"Conversations In Waves"
"Souls Of Birds"
by Johanna J. Bodde

TOM MANK & SERA JANE SMOLEN   "Conversations In Waves"
Self-Released   ( and

The cello is a wonderful musical instrument, it has clearly something of the human voice in its sound. It can play little basslines, supports a guitar or a vocal, also have a conversation with them and excel in fine solos. Provided of course, that the instrument has a professionally skilled lady-boss, like Dr. Sera Jane Smolen here. She studied at the school of music, plays in various orchestras and teaches at the university of Mansfield now. The friendly looking gentleman at her side is singer-songwriter Tom Mank from Ithaca, New York and he has, like so many of his colleagues, learned everything by himself! He writes poetic lyrics with pretty, recognizable moods and images. Tom and Sera Jane call their music "original folk blues improvisation", I don't need to add anything to that adequate definition. On the album "Conversations In Waves" we find three instrumentals, in "Tazmanian 5" the cello faces the world all by itself. The other eight songs are sung by Tom, sometimes in spoken style, nice and relaxed like the typical folksinger, while he plays his acoustic guitar with great ability. Besides the characteristic cello some other musical instruments and vocals participate. I hear intriguing whisper-harmony by Patti Witten ("Silver Rose") and fresh mandolinsounds by Rick Manning in "Waiting For The Sky To Break", "Love's In Motion" is a duet with pianist Laura Branca, just to mention a few things that attract attention. Why would anybody push the cello into playing classical music? This exclusive combination is at least just as beautiful! Little joke: instrumental track 10 is named after the town in Wales with the extremely difficult, long name of 57 letters. Sera Janes's grandmother hailed from the area and teached her the impossible word. No, I won't let our computers run riot by typing it on my keyboard here!
Written by Johanna J. Bodde, Dutch original of this review previously published on Real Roots Cafe, The Netherlands.

(I-Town Records) and

The previous album was still self-released, but for brandnew "Souls Of Birds" singer-songwriter Tom Mank and cellist Sera Jane Smolen have found hospitable shelter with I-Town Records in their hometown of Ithaca, New York. This label can call itself independent indeed, because it is a collective, run by the musicians themselves as equal partners. Maybe a good idea, deserving to be copied? In any case it guarantees the artists enough peace of mind and creative freedom to come to tour-de-forces, as that is how we may qualify the work of Tom and Sera Jane. It is hardly possible to compare this with other music, the only ones coming somewhat close are The Walkabouts in an acoustic mood. Tom has a very calm recital and a somewhat hoarse voice, which in a wonderful way does justice to the beautiful harmony singing of the various female guest-singers. For example "Heart Of My Dreaming" is a perfect duet with violist Dee Specker. Elsewhere we hear Patti Witten, who wrote two songs together with Tom. Laura Branca sings along in the title song, with intriguing lines: "Like a motion picture she knows nothing about." Of course a prominent role is set aside for Sera Jane with her dedicated 1992 Spear cello! She plays virtuoso on every track, "Where Do You Bury A Gypsy" is a solo, composed by herself, while the long "Big Red Moon" exists for almost 7 minutes of instrumental teamwork by cello and sarod. It's a fascinating album, that also presents beautiful, originally arranged illustrations on the cover. Tom and Sera Jane would like to come to Europe next Summer and we can only welcome that idea!
Written by Johanna J. Bodde, translated by Yvonne Bohm. Dutch original of this review previously published on Real Roots Cafe, The Netherlands.