Taking cello into the deep unknown
February 2, 2013
CARBONDALE – “Song Reader,” the latest album by Beck, probably has most music fans scratching their heads, wondering if this is something for them. For Doug Jenkins, “Song Reader” is such a joy, so right up his alley that it has left him wondering if Beck did, in fact, have him and his group, the Portland Cello Project, specifically in mind.
“I don’t know if he had any idea who we are,” Jenkins said while driving through West Yellowstone. “But yeah, it did feel like that.”
“Song Reader” is not an album in the traditional sense, or at least not a traditional Beck album. Beck didn’t record “Song Reader”; he scored it. Beck composed 20 songs, almost all of them for piano, vocals and guitar or ukulele and published it as sheet music. The idea was that other musicians would take the notated music, arrange it to suit their purposes and their particular style, and perform it or even record it.
As it happens, this has been the standard m.o. for the Portland Cello Project since its founding six years ago – take the music somebody else put down on paper and arrange it to fit their particular ensemble. The group has played Kanye West, Duke Ellington, Beethoven and Radiohead, all adapted for a group whose core is six cellists. “Song Reader” fit the Portland Cello Project’s methodology so well that Jenkins and the group committed to taking on the album before they even saw the scores. In fact, Beck’s concept was such a good match that when it was first announced, in August, Jenkins’ inbox started filling up.
“We were playing a festival in the San Juan Islands, and I got eight or nine texts right away,” Jenkins said. “All of our fans, our friends, were telling us we need to do it. It was the most exciting thing when we heard about it.”
Jenkins got right to it, booking three “Song Reader” shows for mid-December in Oregon – knowing that he wouldn’t have the slightest idea what the music would be like until Dec. 7, when the publisher McSweeney’s released the music. As it happened, the sheet music was sent to Jenkins a few days early, which still perplexes him. Some 10 days later, the Portland Cello Project, fortified with a bunch of guest singers and instrumentalists, was playing “Song Reader” in front of audiences.
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As a kid in Honolulu, Jenkins had played classical music almost exclusively. But by high school, he had branched as far afield as punk rock, and Beck, who jumped around from funk to folk to electronica, became a favorite.
“He’s a chameleon; he’s adapted to everything. I’ve been a big fan for a while,” the 36-year-old Jenkins, who studied cello at the University of Hawaii, said. Of “Song Reader,” Jenkins said, “I had faith these would be good songs, that it wouldn’t be a joke book.”
Jenkins could tell right away that the 20 tunes were going to work. But only when the group went into the studio to arrange and record “Song Reader” – “Eight days. Eight very long days,” Jenkins said – did Portland Cello Project realize just what Beck had created.
“Instantly, you could get a feel for a song,” he said. “But when you’d get into it, that’s when these little magical things would happen. That’s when you’d see how refined it is.”
Portland Cello Project’s “Song Reader,” a satisfying take on avant-Americana that features horns, drums and a crew of singers including Jolie Holland, was released in late December. Numerous artists have performed and recorded “Old Shanghai,” the “single” from “Song Reader,” but Portland Cello Project is the only group to have recorded the full album.
Portland Cello Project was born as a group of cellists, all new to Portland, playing standard classical repertoire one night in cellist Tony Rogers’ home. Someone got the idea to move things into a bar. “Because we sit around drinking beers and playing anyway,” he said. For their first gig, at the hipster dive Doug Fir Lounge, they assembled nine cellos and played Vivaldi, Handel and Villalobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras,” composed for eight cellos and soprano.
Things clicked into place on their next date, when they brought in singer Laurie Gibson to sing a Britney Spears tune. “Right away we saw that was a good idea. The crowd loved it, we loved it,” Jenkins said, noting that Portland Cello Project is now a full-time gig for him, though the other members all have other musical endeavors.
For their local debut, Saturday at PAC3 in Carbondale, the Portland Cello Project, with a percussionist, trumpeter and vocalist, will play selections from “Song Reader,” along with jazz, modern rock, classical and whatever might seem right for the moment. “If it’s a bunch of head-banging teens, we’ll play all heavy metal,” Jenkins said.