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Portland Cello Project brings some holiday cheer while continuing to think outside the musical box | Music News | Spokane | The Pacific Northwest Inlander

todayNovember 30, 2023 6

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Jason Quigley photo

Seasonal strings via the Portland Cello Project.

Genre blending has become more and more the norm these days. We”re long past the point where mixing rap and rock, EDM and pop or funk and jazz feel like novelties. That said, there are few groups that can cover as much sonic ground over the course of a single concert as the Portland Cello Project.

“The Portland Cello Project is a classical music-looking ensemble that plays all sorts of music with the goal of bringing together many different musical communities onstage,” says Douglas Jenkins, Portland Cello Project’s artistic director and a cellist with the grou. “So you might hear classical music for a minute, and then that might turn into jazz, and then that might turn into Taylor Swift, and that might turn into Pantera. We just try to celebrate the best of all types of music and see what they’re like if you do it on the cello.”

The group initially only formed for one of those increasingly omnipresent let’s put classical music in an atypical space concerts, originally getting nine cellists together for what most imagined would be a one-off performance at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge in 2006. But the enthusiastic response from Portlanders spurred the collective to do more. They quickly pivoted off of staying only in the classical lane and played shows with arrangements of popular music ranging from Radiohead to Kanye West. (The group’s cover of Ye’s “All the Lights” has over 1 million views on YouTube.)

“Portland Cello Project is definitely something we always thought would be a flash in the pan, but for some reason isn’t,” says Jenkins. “I think a lot of that is just the focus on trying to keep things quality, trying to mix things up, and not really falling into a box so quickly. That’s had its pros and cons over the years. Like back when we’re doing Kanye West covers and stuff like that, we could have probably just really driven that into the ground for a year and probably would’ve made a ton of money, but then we probably wouldn’t exist anymore.”

Portland Cello Project also doesn’t feel the need to be all cello all the time, expanding its sounds with singers and full rock band accompaniment at times. This allows them to play everything from concert halls to punk clubs without missing a beat. While there’s a core group of regular cellists in the group (around a dozen), there’s a larger pool of local players who have taken turns bringing the music to life onstage.

“There has always been a community of cellists here in Portland who like doing this. We’re all classically trained, and it’s different than what we normally get to do,” say Jenkins. “It’s playing venues we don’t normally get to play. And I think we all feel very grateful and lucky for that. So it’s always been the mission to find a way to do something that keeps it sustainable and keeps it fun and keeps it working for everybody.”

The range of the Portland Cello Project is actually kind of astronomical. The group has over 1,700 pieces in its playable repertoire, and the reason that PCP is able to cover so much musical ground lies in the inherent sonic scope of the cello itself.

“The cello has the range of the full human voice from the lowest bass to the to the highest soprano. We can play all the voices, which not every instrument can do,” says Jenkins. “I think that’s probably the main technical reason that lets us be as versatile as we are. But I think there are other reasons [audiences like the cello] too. Just visually, it’s like we’re dancing with the instrument — the way it looks and the way we’re sitting with it.”

Portland Cello Project’s upcoming stop at District Bar shall take the collective in a festive direction, as the group tours behind its new holiday EP, Under the Mistletoe (out Dec. 8, but available a day early at the show). The touring ensemble this time out will feature five or six cellists, a bassist, pianist, drummer, trombone player, and singers headlined by Saeeda Wright, who sings on the EP and was part of Prince’s New Power Generation.

Under the Mistletoe‘s five songs keep listeners on their… well… toes. Jenkins raves about the new arrangements by collaborator and pianist Alex Milstead saying they’re “just a little bit outside the box. Like rhythms are going to be in different places than what you’re expecting.” The album includes a “Winter Wonderland” bursting with jazzy pep, a more classical take on “O Holy Night,” a rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear” that boasts soft funk undertones, a rhythmically explorative “What Child Is This,” and the less well-known seasonal song “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” The concert will expand on what Under the Mistletoe offers, featuring everything from Christmas music to Hanukkah medleys to traditional Solstice tunes (and, sure, maybe a little Taylor Swift thrown into the mix).

Jenkins isn’t sure what’s next for Portland Cello Project after this holiday tour, but that not knowing is part of the thrill for the project’s players. The pure malleability of the niche that the Portland Cello Project has carved out for itself means that anything and everything can be on the proverbial table.

“It’s always been about going where the wind blows. And the nice thing is you never quite know where it’s gonna blow next,” says Jenkins. “So I don’t know what our next step is or our next iteration, I feel like I’ve never been in a place where I know less than I know right now about that. It just doesn’t feel like there’s a very obvious path forward, because there are so many good paths forward we could take. We could just do a really wild jazz album… we could go in just a much more classical direction, which we haven’t done either, believe it or not… we’ve actually never done just a pop music cover album, which seems odd because we have so many videos that have like a million hits on YouTube or whatever that are pop music… maybe we should just do that. [Laughs]” ♦

Portland Cello Project • Thu, Dec. 7 at 8 pm • $20 • 21+ • District Bar • 916 W. First Ave. • sp.knittingfactory.com





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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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