Bob Zander,
Skyline to the Sea
(independent, 2001)

In Skyline to the Sea, Bob Zander takes the unusual step of making a jazz album with world music flavor, featuring the kalimba, or African thumb piano.

Although it is not heard in this country much, the kalimba is quite common in Africa. Usually, it is made with metal keys that are plucked over a wooden resonating box about the size of a thick trade paperback book. There are holes in the bottom for the fingers to provide a vibrato effect.

There are two large problems in recording a kalimba. First, it naturally has a low volume. Zander and other players have solved this problem by using microphones and/or electronic pickups. This CD in particular also benefits from expert production.

The second is that a kalimba can only play a certain number of notes. Although the keys can be tuned to the scale of Western music, it does not have nearly the range of the usual instruments used in jazz. Zander solves that problem by using the kalimba for rhythm instead of carrying a melody. He repeats patterns of notes for a background, and overtracks himself at many points.

The melody is taken up by trumpet, violin, flute or guitar on various tracks, with backing by bass, hand drums and occasionally a full drum kit to augment the kalimba. The players are all excellent, coming up with exotic melodies that complement Zander's playing.

This unusual CD may not be to everyone's taste, although it should not sound strange to those used to hearing nu-jazz and broken-beat jazz. Zander's kalimba is a superior replacement to the programmed beats in this style, being more original and less mechanical (and less irritating). On most cuts, the instrument sounds somewhat like a marimba.

On most of the 10 tracks, the kalimba begins the tune, then the bass and percussion come in, and then the lead melody instrument begins. An exception is "Mandala," where the kalimba is the lead instrument. It's a nice tune with a funky beat. Zander could have taken the forefront on a few more cuts.

This CD is far ahead of boring "smooth" jazz, proving that jazz can be mellow but still exciting and filled with new ideas.

- Rambles
written by Dave Howell
published 23 July 2005