Zuill Bailey was a rambunctious child. The cello changed him. Bailey's first encounter with the cello was at a symphony concert as a young child. Running through the halls, he "smashed into a girl holding a cello," breaking the instrument, he recalled. Bailey claims that right then, he decided he wanted to play the cello.

He got encouragement from his musician parents, who steered him away from the violin because his sister was playing it and they didn't want their children to compete. So Bailey started with the cello as a four-year-old. "I sat on telephone books," he said, "and fortunately, they make cellos very small."

The instrument calmed and focused him.

"The cello as an instrument is very soothing," said the 29-year-old musician, who grew up in Virginia and is now based in New Mexico. "You hold it against your chest. It's literally like hugging somebody."

Bailey's relationship with the instrument has grown even more intimate. "I truly can't remember the cello not being in my hands," he said. "It's like another arm."

With talk like that, it's little surprise that Bailey considers the cello his "voice." And you'll have the opportunity to hear that voice when he comes to the Quad Cities next week for a residency as part of the Quad City Arts Visiting Artist program. Bailey will play two free public shows: an informal concert at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, December 4, at the Deere Administrative Center Auditorium in Moline; and on Saturday, December 15, at 7 p.m. at the St. Katherine's/St. Mark's Performing Arts Center in Bettendorf.

"My goal is to present the cello as a vehicle that is similar to the human voice," Bailey said in a telephone interview. "It can do it all."

Bailey is well-known in classical-music circles for his expressive and expansive playing, a smoldering intensity, and - for good measure - what some critics have dubbed "movie star" looks. (If that's not enough, a South Carolina paper declared, "He has the winning stage presence of a rock star with manners.")

The comparison between cello and the human voice might seem strained, but Bailey doesn't think so. The playing of the cello isn't necessarily about the pieces he's performing, especially initially. "I'm trying to find out what I'm all about," he said. "Then I'm ready to present it to the public."

When asked what he's trying to say, Bailey was coy. "You've got to hear it and tell me," he said. Bailey's instrument sounds different to him than to the rest of the world, like hearing a recording of your own voice. "What I'm playing is partially what's in my head," he said. And when he listens to a recording of himself, "I hear things I didn't know I was playing."

Bailey doesn't want to ape other musicians in their interpretations of compositions. Often, over the course of a career, a cellist's performance of a piece will mutate. And then other musicians mimic that interpretation and add their own spins. The result is not unlike the game of Telephone: The original text gets lost after passing through so many hands. "I've always been drawn to the cellists of the past," he said. "It's not that they have more to say; they were much more deliberate."

The word "deliberate" is important. Bailey seems to think that many musicians have been careless with the pieces they perform, taking liberties, deviating too much from the compositions.

"I'm striving for a definitive sound," he said. "You have to keep going back to the score." That also means exploring the composer's intent - and the stories behind why something was written.

Bailey often shares that history with his audiences, speaking from the stage and introducing selections. It's partially a way of engaging audiences who might not be familiar with classical music. "The more you know about it, the more interesting it becomes," he said. And the story behind a composition's genesis is frequently juicy, "nine times out of 10 a big soap opera." The Schumann cello concerto, for instance, was written as the composer was going insane. The only way he could silence the voices in his head was to write the piece.

Said Bailey: "I try to break all the walls down by telling the stories" - with both his voices.

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