Tonight: Portland Cello Project revives classical music at Club Cafe

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They were sitting in a circle when they suddenly decided, "Hey, let's go have fun in a bar."

But they didn't take their dates. They took their cellos.

Such was the start of the Portland Cello Project, a collection of cellists determined to use their mighty instruments to unite the world of music.

"It started as a lark," said Doug Jenkins, who was there for that first rehearsal in 2007. "After we did the first show, we were like, 'Yeah, hey, let's go play classical music in bars.' It wasn't that unique of an idea, but we were like, 'Yeah, let's try that.'

"We're playing all different kinds of music and different collaborations, just trying to bridge the divide between classical music and other music forms. One night we might actually be playing in a symphony hall, the next night we're playing in a heavy metal club, and then the next night we're playing on a loading dock somewhere. Whatever venues are along the way."

But it's not all about classical music. The players mix it up, showing audiences just what range the cello is capable of reaching.

"Touring with this group is the funnest thing," Mr. Jenkins said. "The response has been fabulous. We've had audiences of all varieties, all ages. Kids with parents and grandparents. Hip-hop fans and heavy metal fans.

"It's fun to look out over the audience and think, 'These are all people who would never interact on the street, and they're all bobbing their heads to Kanye West right now.'"

Tonight's stop at Club Cafe on the South Side marks PCP's first visit to Pittsburgh, one of 18 cities the players are visiting in their three-week tour.

"It's something we do a lot of at this point," Mr. Jenkins said of touring. "Maybe the last three years or so we've toured pretty extensively. It's actually become a big part of the mission of the group to bring the cello to all kinds of different audiences all over North America.

"We're serious, but it's definitely fun. There is that mission feeling of 'Let's break down barriers and let's just make this music more accessible and expand people's expectations of what this instrument can do.'"

And just what can a cello do?

"It's the most human instrument," Mr. Jenkins said. "You dance with it when you play it. It's got the same range as the human voice, from the lowest baritone to the highest soprano. For someone who can't sing, it takes the function of my voice."

Over the years, PCP has had a variety of members and the number of players varies from tour to tour, gig to gig. There are five cellists -- as well as a drummer and a bass player -- on this trip.

"The performance will be pure cello stuff interspersed with more jazzy stuff and more rock stuff. It's just a big mixture," Mr. Jenkins said. "There's a lot of jazz on this tour. Some Beck, Brubeck and Bach.

"We have things scored out, but we do some improvised stuff and get off the page. When this group first started, that was putting a lot of us out of our comfort zone, because we're all classically trained cellists who have been playing classical music, symphonic and chamber music for a long time. Then, all of a sudden, now we're playing notes that are off the page. It's been a fun journey in that respect.

"If our goal is to expand people's perceptions of the cello, it's also been to expand what we've been able to do with it personally. And that's been a lot of fun."

Some of the members still play with the occasional orchestra, but others are more likely to spend an off-night playing with a rock band in a local club.

Mr. Jenkins said the response in the symphonic world has been mixed.

"The majority appreciate it," he said. "I mean, the principal cellist of the Oregon Symphony plays with us. So, the majority are like, 'Yeah, I want to do this. It sounds fun.'

"In the classical music world, though, you do always have the people who really value specialization and tend to focus on one specific thing, and they're more likely to look down on it. And I understand that. I don't judge it at all. It's just a different way of approaching the instrument. For the most part, people see that it's fun and want to take part in it, too."

Joining the Portland Cello Project on this tour is vocalist Jolie Holland.

"It's kind of been the third part of our three-part philosophy to have musicians from other backgrounds and form a bridge to cello and other types of music," Mr. Jenkins said. "Jolie is playing the opening set with her band, and then she joins us for two songs in our set."

It starts at 7 p.m. at Club Cafe, 56 S. 12th St.

Cover is $18.

Dan Majors:

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