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Cellist Lee Zimmerman, left, and pianist-vocalist Radslav Lorkovic met while hiking in the woods, then discovered they're on the same musical wavelength, a fact they demonstate while on stage together.

Boogie-woogie pianist, classical cellist hit the strings for a night of improv

Preview: Missoula concert

Who: Lee Zimmerman and Radoslav Lorkovic

What: Missoula Folklore Society Concert Series

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Crystal Theatre, 515 S. Higgins Ave.

Tickets: $10 in advance from Rockin Rudys.

Hamilton concert

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hamilton Performing Arts Center, at Hamilton High School, 327 Fairgrounds Road

Tickets: $10 advance at Chapter One Bookstore or at 375-9528; $12 at door; $5 students.

When Lee Zimmerman quit building homes around the Missoula area three years ago, he did so with a mission: to find a quieter, less-expensive lifestyle, a place where he could focus on doing what he loved. He wanted to play the cello.

Soon enough, his explorations led him to Hot Springs, that quirky western Montana town known equally for its rejuvenating mineral springs and colorful cast of local characters. There, Zimmerman began playing cello and learning to sing along with his own music.

"With so few musicians in this area, I basically had to become my own ensemble," says Zimmerman. "Doing both (singing and playing cello) at the same time is like driving way too fast on a gravel road. It's a lotta fun, but when you get sideways you're in deep trouble."

Zimmerman also took a part-time job booking music at the Symes Hot Springs Hotel. Somewhere along the way, Zimmerman heard about a pianist and singer who would occasionally come through town and play.

His name was Radoslav Lorkovic, a Croatian-born musician who had performed and recorded with numerous luminaries of the folk music world, including Greg Brown, Patty Larkin and Richard Shindell. Lorkovic had even performed at Carnegie Hall.

Zimmerman booked Lorkovic at the hotel a few times, but never managed to see him perform.

By this time Zimmerman was himself performing at other regional venues. He always seemed to be out of town when Lorkovic would perform at the Symes.

But one day in the summer of 2002, just prior to another of Lorkovic's Symes Hotel performances, Zimmerman ran into Lorkovic while hiking in the woods. Lorkovic invited Zimmerman to bring his cello down to the hotel for an impromptu jam session during his performance.

"I showed up and kind of hid my cello in the corner of the room," recalls Zimmerman.

But Lorkovic remembered his offer, and invited Zimmerman to join him during his second set.

"We just ripped," says Zimmerman. "It was amazing. It was like two brothers separated at birth. Š Playing with him is like being shot out of a cannon."

The chemistry wasn't lost on Lorkovic, who calls Zimmerman "the cellist I've been looking for."

The two share both a love for boogie and blues music, and classical roots that add an essential degree of depth and complexity to their music.

"Rad's grandma was a great concert pianist in Croatia, and a lot of my childhood heroes like (famed Italian cellist) Antonio Janigro were people who actually hung out at Rad's house when he was a kid," says Zimmerman.

"I'm a classically trained cellist but I'm basically a rocker at heart, whereas he has little classical training, but he loves to play Mozart by ear," continues Zimmerman. "So it's a really nice synergy between us."

To this day, the two have never rehearsed a single song - despite the fact that Lorkovic often lives in Zimmerman's basement when he's performing in the area.

But with plans developing for a collaborative CD and possibly a tour, the two may eventually be forced to put in some practice hours.

Not that they need many. A recent concert recorded at the Symes Hotel reveals a duo that's already in sync, whether they're playing minor-key improvisational boogie, or Jimmy Buffett-inflected blues, or even Cajun-style romps, with Lorkovic on the accordion.

At worst, Zimmerman's cello can sometimes seem buried or superfluous to Lorkovic's pianistic acrobatics.

At their best, the two can whip up some fine improvisational fantasies.

"Rad is just so intuitive as a performer, and we don't want to wreck that recklessness," says Zimmerman.

"Playing the cello in this style of music, it's a very tough balance of being aware and keen to the nuances, and yet not letting that hold you back. With Rad, it seems to come pretty easy."

Reach Joe Nickell at 523-5358 or jnickell@missoulian.com.

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