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Cellist at large

Outside the box with Lee Zimmerman

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A fourth-generation Montanan, cellist Lee Zimmerman grew up in Billings and attended Senior High School, where he was just a year behind another future Missoulian, artist Dirk Lee. Zimmerman remembers Lee painting a microcosmic circular mural on the wall between the second and third floors of the high school in 1967.

“Last time I was there was 10 or 15 years ago,” Zimmerman recalls, “and it was still there. Hope it still is. It was an incredible statement of the times.”

Zimmerman didn’t graduate in 1969 like he was supposed to. Swept away by all the youth rebellion in the air?

“Oh, no,” he says, a dry chuckle not quite eclipsing his reluctance to discuss the specifics. “It was much more complicated than that. As you know, Billings is a very conservative town. Let’s just say that back in those days, they freaked out and threw a lot of us away.”

Appreciated. After high school, Zimmerman got into the building trade and stayed there for 30 years. Twenty of those were spent in Missoula, he says, where he made a comfortable living “designing custom luxury homes for rich people” before deciding to hang it up about five years ago.

“I got extremely tired of it,” he explains. “And I lost my soul. Music was really the key to getting it back and getting myself together, and the cello was the biggest thing. It was just what I needed, only it took me awhile to realize it.”

Zimmerman had picked up the cello at a young age (“I went to music school and everything!” he enthuses) and kept at it fairly regularly until he was 27, when he sustained a relatively minor injury to his left hand that nonetheless ended his cello playing.

“It was a very simple injury,” he says, “but it had pretty grave consequences.”

When he did take it up again, he decided to go about learning the instrument again a little differently.

“I made a vow that I was never going to play classical music again,” he says, implying that he found the orthodoxies somewhat stifling. “I mean, jazz is one thing—what I can do on the cello is way out of the box. Technically speaking, it’s a whole new world.”

One traveling companion in this new world is friend and collaborator Radoslav Lorkovic, a Croatian-born pianist and all-around keyboard wiz. Lorkovic was recommended to Zimmerman by a mutual acquaintance, Missoula musician Beth Bramhall, whom Zimmerman remembers as saying, “’You gotta meet this guy!’” On the strength of Bramhall’s recommendation, he started booking solo performances for Lorkovic at the Symes Hotel in Hot Springs, but was unable to attend the first few shows. He finally met the pianist, he recalls, walking around in the nearby woods. Lorkovic encouraged him to turn up for the performance that night with his cello.

“Two songs into the set, he said, ‘Hey, where’s that cello player?’ I got up there and it was like we were two brothers, honest-to-God amazing. We’d never even heard each other play, and it was just terrific.”

Zimmerman also admits to being blown away by Lorkovic’s CV, which includes collaborations with Greg Brown, Patty Larkin, Joe Price and many others. He compares playing with Lorkovic to being “shot out of a cannon,” and admits that it’s also very tiring for the fingers.

Luckily, his technique and stamina might be the best they’ve been since before the hand injury some 25 years ago. Zimmerman says when his hand was still hurting six or eight months after taking the instrument up again, he finally went to a doctor to find out if any new surgical innovations had popped up in the intervening quarter-century.

“He said, ‘Nope, I won’t do nothing to it. Make it hurt and it’ll probably get better.’ It cost me $175 to find that out!”

On his way home, though, Zimmerman tuned into a Stephane Grappelli tribute to Django Reinhardt on the radio. It had a catalytic effect on him.

“That guy had three fingers fused together by a fire and he still played. I just told myself, ‘Hell, I’m gonna go home and make that son of a bitch hurt!’”

The hand never hurts now, he says, even after practicing for at least two—and sometimes four or five—hours every day. He’s even playing classical music again.

“Because it’s wonderful,” he exclaims, adding that he’s currently lavishing time on some Bach sonatas. “And it’s incredibly good for technique.”

On that subject, Zimmerman has at least one eccentricity that might give colleagues like Yo Yo Ma pause: his habit of sometimes playing with the cello slung in a strap so he can stand up and walk around. It’s liberating, he says.

“Of course,” he adds, “the truth is that it’s quite a bit easier to play sitting down...”

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