This Club’s Marimbas Only

Leigh Howard Stevens, the maestro of the mallets, is in the middle of the annual Summer Marimba Festival in Asbury Park.

The Musser-Stevens Grip! Sounds intriguing.

But what is it? Some sort of secret handshake? A union crew guy on a Hollywood set? a maneuver from the apocrypha chapters of the Kama Sutra?

If you guessed it to be some manner of accessing an exclusive club, you’re closer to the mark than you might have thought. And even though this club is technically “marimbas only,” the public is more than welcome to observe its arcane rituals — for this is the annual Summer Marimba Festival, a generally below-the-radar event that gathers the nation’s premier classical marimbists in one seaside setting, with Ocean Grove and Asbury Park the host cities for music, master classes and mallets aforethought.

Of course, if you can name only one of the nation’s premier classical marimbists, let it be Leigh Howard Stevens — the artist, innovator, entrepeneur and proud son of Jersey who modified the existing “Musser grip” into a frankly revolutionary, vertically held, four-mallet technique that broadened the sonic spectrum of the percussion player’s palette. Developer of the world-shaking “MoM” (Method of Movement) approach; author of the definitive textbook on this new style of playing; scholar, guru and businessman; the 58 year old Stevens has built Neptune-based Marimba Productions into the world’s biggest name in publishing, record distribution and products for the instrument.

Put in guitar terms, it’s as if Hendrix, Zappa, Les Paul, Jimmy Page, Robert “Guitar Craft” Fripp and maybe Jimmy Buffett were all the same guy. And here in June 2011, the Hendrix-Zappa-Paul-Page-Fripp-Buffett of the melodically malleted/ harmonically hammered instrument group gives a rare public recital, right in our Upper Wet Side back yard.

Hammertime: Rising marimba megastar Nathaniel Bartlett comes to Asbury Park’s Trinity Church for a June 18 recital appearance.

To pursue yet another rock analogy, it may seem a stretch to call Monmouth County’s LHS the “Boss” of the marimba — but it should be noted that he once played drums in a band managed by Max Weinberg, who would later say of Stevens, “I wanted to rock, and he wanted to become a musician.”

The marimba never caught on much in the rock oeuvre beyond Ruth Underwood‘s tenure with the aforementioned Zappa, or Ed Marimba in Captain Beefheart‘s band, or Brian Jones messing around on “Under My Thumb” or “Out of Time” — but the big, beautiful, hard-to-transport music machine has staked a comfortable niche in the realms of jazz, classical chamber repertory and that surprisingly diverse portfolio of new music written especially for the instrument — of which the Stevens composition “Rhythmic Caprice” is a particularly inventive and well-regarded example.

With its clattering stickwork and challenging choreography — yeah, the best of this music is at least as much about choreography as it is about notation — performances of selections like “Caprice” up the ante on the usual bow-tied concert hall gravitas, adding an engaging note of the street performer’s art to the mix. When you play the marimba, you’re gonna be more Glenn Gould than Artur Rubinstein.

Registration for Stevens’s 32nd annual slate of Summer Marimba Seminar lectures and workshops has long since closed, but that’s only bad news if you’re a hammerin’ hopeful who was looking to spend a pleasant Jersey Shore late-spring studying with the best in the business. If you’d simply like to sit back and hear the best in the business at work, you’ve still got several chances to intersect with the current slate of recitals going on at two musically mindful Asbury Park houses of worship —  Holy Spirit Church on Second Avenue, and Trinity Episcopal Church on Asbury Avenue.

The recital series, which presented a pair of events this past weekend (one of them starring the nationally renowned Gordon Stout) continues on Saturday, June 11, when Michael Burritt comes to Trinity Church for a 7pm performance. Trinity is still the scene on June 18, when innovative modern marimbist Nathaniel Bartlett — a player who melds acoustic instrumentation with “three-dimensional, high-definition, computer-generated sound” — performs in a 7pm showcase. The series concludes on Sunday, June 19, when Leigh Howard Stevens returns to Holy Spirit to show all these young upstarts how it’s done.

A donation of at least $7 to $10 per person is accepted for the benefit of the host churches at each event. For more info, email seminar@mostlymarimba.com.

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