(Intermediate Swing, CD)
When that toy xylophone you bang on as a child grows up, it probably dreams of maturing into the marimba. This exotic member of the percussion family evolved from African and South American roots. Jane Boxall, a native Brit and recent transplant to Burlington, plays on a beaut: a 9-foot-long, five-octave Coe marimba. The rosewood keys, arrayed with whole and half notes like a piano keyboard, have aluminum pipes suspended below to amplify the sound when the musician’s mallets strike the wood.
Boxall’s debut CD, Spherical Music, shows off the marimba’s sensuous sonorities across a wide range of musical styles. Because the performer uses multiple mallets to hit several notes at a time, solo marimba music can weave complex lines of counterpoint and create sophisticated harmonies. The opening track, Vida Chenoweth’s “Invention No. 1” (1953), has a Bach-inspired vibe. Its jaunty fugue unspools with clarity, while highlighting the marimba’s tonal warmth.
The trio of “Country Dances” (1950), by Eloise Niwa, also captures a playful Baroque energy. Pianist Samuel Gingher accompanies Boxall, and the two instruments engage in a spirited exchange of melodic and harmonic material. One flaw: The piano sound seems hollow compared to the marimba, as if the instrument wasn’t properly miked in the recording studio.
In many of the other tracks, Boxall demonstrates the marimba’s wonderful niche combining percussive power and sweetness of tone. Victoria Poleva’s “Warm Wind” (2008) and Eve Beglarian’s “Spherical Music” (1985/1998) display how the instrument, in Boxall’s expert hands, conjures a tremendous range of effects. Quiet passages feel delicately atmospheric and meditative; louder ones ruminate, rumble and grow stormy.
One curious and ultimately distracting choice is that Boxall intersperses the CD’s principal tracks with seven brief excerpts from her 2002 composition, “Untitled.” So Chenoweth’s lovely “Invention” and Poleva’s relaxing “Warm Wind” are separated by 14 seconds of, well, it’s hard to know what it is. It’s not a discrete movement of a piece, nor is it solo marimba music. The liner notes don’t explain “Untitled”; they contain just a list of track titles and thank-yous. Why not run all the excerpts together and at least note the instrumentation?
As fascinating as it is to listen to the CD, taking in a live performance of this unusual instrument seems like an even more enticing option. Jane Boxall appears this Friday, April 24, at Burlington’s Designhaus, at 7 p.m. She supplements her marimba music with electronics, drums and live photography projections. Bassist Aram Bedrosian also performs.