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Music

Cellist Rushad Eggleston pioneers his own world

After working with Crooked Still and Fiddlers 4, Rushad Eggleston’s latest focus is on solo performance.

Bill Staffeld

After working with Crooked Still and Fiddlers 4, Rushad Eggleston’s latest focus is on solo performance.

CAMBRIDGE — Rushad Eggleston presents himself as an ambassador from another world, and it can be easy to believe him.

Onstage, the cellist and fountain of off-kilter creativity looks like an overgrown elf in his pointed cap and brightly colored stretch-pants. His songs are populated by strange characters and littered with inscrutable neologisms, with story lines sometimes taking place in an imaginary world he playfully calls the Land of Sneth. He once played a solo while dangling high above his band on wires, Peter Pan-like.

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But behind the boisterous showmanship and dogged weirdness is a natural talent who netted a Grammy nomination while still an undergrad at Berklee College of Music. As a collaborator with fiddle great Darol Anger, a founding member of popular bluegrass revisionists Crooked Still, or leader of his own varied solo efforts, Eggleston has followed an unpredictable path.

Rushad Eggleston

Club Passim, 47 Palmer St., Cambridge 617-492-7679. http://www.clubpassim.org

Date of concert:
Thursday, 8 p.m.
Ticket price:
$13, $15

“I’m still trying to figure out what my thing is and how I want to do it. I don’t know how long I’m going to keep becoming who I am,” Eggleston, 33, says in a phone interview while en route to a house concert in Oregon.

The northern California native had already dropped out of high school when his musicianship won him a full scholarship to Berklee. When the members of his jazzy, student string quartet overslept and missed a showcase set at a Montreal music festival, Eggleston convinced Anger, who was also on the bill, to let the group play a few tunes for him. That sparked a musical relationship leading to a founding chair in Anger’s quartet Fiddlers 4, whose self-titled album captured that Grammy nod in 2003.

Open to improvisation and spontaneous musical digressions, Eggleston has a touch on the cello that is lively and percussive, integrating various kinds of chops — the tight musicianship that would serve him well in a classical or jazz context, as well as the heavy, chopping downstrokes favored by bluegrass players.

“Fiddle music had a more friendly and approachable feel to me than jazz. My passion at the time was to try to create a sound on the cello that was like what the fiddle is to the violin — a more fluid and natural kind of vernacular approach,” he recalls. “I was just trying to make a new sound on the cello and use it to express my spontaneous musical explosions, or whatever you call them.”

He developed that approach further with Crooked Still, then left the group after its first two albums to cook up the notion of a cello-led power trio with the heavy-rocking Tornado Rider.

The latest focus is solo performance. Conceived as an imaginary radio show, his new self-released album, “The Rushad Eggleston Show,” features 27 tracks that weave between songs, storytelling, and the occasional poem. One tune detours into a simulated baseball-game broadcast. It’s a fair taste of the live experience, and what showgoers might expect at his solo Club Passim gig on Thursday.

“It's been rare to find players who can really move around on the cello with a lot of facility in an improvisational way,” says cellist Eugene Friesen, who’s won three Grammy Awards himself for his work with the Paul Winter Consort, and taught Eggleston as a faculty member at Berklee. “This has become a lot more common in the last 20 years, but it’s thanks to a handful of pioneers who have really been out there trying to push the envelope. And Rushad is one of them.”

Even when Eggleston starts to describe his musical mission in sober, articulate terms, it becomes hard to know how much to take literally.

“I’m very serious about my musical ambitions, and serious about working hard and getting my message out there,” he says, “and transmitting the vibrations of Sneth to planet Earth is a very serious mission for me.”

Pressed to explain the Land of Sneth concept (it used to be the Land of Snee but transformed into a “more fiery” incarnation — don’t ask), he says it’s not a linearly sketched mythology so much as a creative state of mind.

“Maybe it’s actually a kind of region in my deep subconscious that keeps scrambling up all kinds of languages and sounds that I’ve ever heard and then presenting them to me in a freely organized format,” he says. “It’s subject to sudden and infinite change.”

More tangibly, it also provides a thematic context for new songs like “Mrs. Bursnurkula,” which recalls They Might Be Giants in its oddball melodicism, and the multipart, weirdly engrossing “Gargoyle Comes to Life.”

His irregularly shaped talent has led him to find varied outlets for his work. He’s a hit with kids, and has been an enthusiastic instructor at several musical instruction camps. He’s recorded a straight-faced instructional video for cello students, and appeared this summer (per-forming a song by The Kinks) in a promo-tional video for Mazda. He wonders if a children’s TV show might be his eventual artistic home, or perhaps something in “a completely new format that I couldn’t even possibly imagine right now.”

“He's just one of those natural, out of the box, genius kind of personalities,” Friesen remarks.

What’s next? It seems futile to predict — other than to expect something original and strange. And probably elf-like.

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.

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