NO MELLOW CELLO

LYLE LOVETT'S CELLIST, JOHN HAGEN, BENDS MORE THAN STRINGS

"It's a great time for me to remember that I do play cello," Hagen deadpans. "Or to remind me that I don't . . . and that I need to."
The punch line is trademark: He's way tougher on himself than his audiences are. Still, his several-minute-long solo on Lovett's "You Can't Resist It" is so regularly the stuff of ovations, the kudos should be cracking him in the head.

That audiences go unmitigatedly nuts for it no longer surprises him; why they go so nuts does puzzle him. "It's not that unusual," he insists--insisting, of course, in the context of "early-20th-century composers like [Zolt n] Kod ly, who were writing amazing cello works."

When the context is the sleepy body of pop cello, he will concede that the solo is "unconventional"--still a tame description for a semi-improvised soundscape that opens with what Hagen himself calls "screaming" harmonics. Following which it plows a few waving walls of sound, reverts to a brooding blues, climbs ear-clawing pitches, and even dumps the audience into stone-dead calm.

"That's an interesting moment," Hagen allows. It's a challenge, he says, "not to fill up all the spaces," to know when not to play, to make silences as purposeful as the music.

As for the whole of the soundscape? Its function? Its significance in the pop scheme of things?

He thinks, shrugs. Eventually, he speaks.
"Basically," he says, "it's having fun with noises."
@rule:

@body:"I don't feel revolutionary at all," is his take on his work. "It's hard to, after so many years of doing this, it's hard to view myself as doing something unusual anymore. I used to go out onstage apprehensive about how people were going to react to the cello. I mean, I was doing it and I thought it was unusual. It always felt like I was on uncharted waters."

Now, Hagen thinks "the cello is on the verge of making a big breakthrough."
"It's really an amazing instrument, it'll do so many things. You can play bass lines on it, you can do bass solos and then pluck up a little higher than a bass, you can bow the blues or jazz, you can cover the midrange, you can cover the upper stuff. . . .

"I wouldn't be surprised to see somebody come up who really can blow jazz on a cello, like a Coltrane or somebody. I mean, why not? Certainly, you can get around on a cello like that, classical players do it. It's just a matter of someone really coming along and just work, work, work until they work their fingers to the bone."
Is he going to be that someone?
"Ah. . . . It's too late for me."

He laughs, and it's hard telling whether the statement's just another self-effacing sneeze, a sideman's automatic reaction.

"I can accept the spotlight for short periods of time, but I don't know that I'd want to be the focus," is his bottom line, at least for the time being. Lovett's become a close friend as well as a steady employer. And his shows give Hagen a rare, delicious chance to tweak the public ear, coming as he does "from the underdog position of being a cellist" on a pop stage:

Unexpected. Underrated. And entirely, boneheadedly, underestimated.

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