Nothing Stuffy Here: Musician Brian Calhoon on his 'Marimba Cabaret'

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Wednesday May 3, 2017

"Marimba" and "cabaret" aren't necessarily two words that are usually associated together, but musician Brian Calhoon has cleverly remedied this in recent years with "Marimba Cabaret," his ongoing performance piece that comes to Club Caf this Thursday night.

The accomplished percussionist, who is currently the Director of Admissions for the Boston Conservatory at Berklee School of Music, developed the show to pursue his love of the marimba -- a percussive instrument similar to the xylophone -- and his love of musical theater, art songs and pop music. Expect Calhoon and his musical guests to pursue an eclectic play list that will range from Steven Sondheim to Radiohead, Disney to Outkast, Leonard Bernstein to Florence + The Machine, and a little Whitney Houston mash-up for good measure. Plus the out Calhoon will explore his gender fluid side with the help of a pair of six-inch heels that push him to some seven feet in height. He will be joined on the Club Caf stage by a trio of professional singers: Christina English, Sophie Michaux, and Sonja Tengblad.

EDGE caught up with Calhoon recently for a Q&A:

Part concert, part cabaret

EDGE: How would you describe 'Marimba Cabaret?'

Brian Calhoon: 'Marimba Cabaret' is an evening of songs and stories that combines my love of musical theater, art song, and pop tunes arranged and performed on marimba, vibraphone, and voice.

But more than that, 'Marimba Cabaret' is part concert and part cabaret, a musical umbrella that provides something for everyone. It's a place where you can enjoy yourself, have a drink, hear a few stories, cheer and react to the music when you see fit -- no stuffy classical music rules apply here.

EDGE: Where did it start?

Brian Calhoon: For a long time, I didn't know what to do with my love of playing marimba, singing musical theater, and classical music. I thought they couldn't live in the same space. My classical training pointed me one way, but my passion for musical theater tugged in another direction. It was Greg Jukes, fellow percussionist, hybrid artist and producer, who saw the potential. He had seen me perform solo marimba and voice concerts, part classical and part covers, but not a fully realized concept.

He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to put all the music I love into one place, but I didn't think I could. I thought it wouldn't read well, or be received well by audiences. I could hear people ask: 'What is it -- Is it a new music concert? Are you a cover band? What's a marimba?' Greg saw otherwise, having created unusual and creative acts in the past, he said to call it a cabaret. A simple enough idea, but one that resulted in a show like you've never seen. I credit Greg with daring me to do this and giving me the confidence to take my passions and put them into one fun and meaningful show.

What is a marimba?

EDGE: What led you to pursue a career as a percussionist?

Brian Calhoon: Being a professional percussionist requires you to play a wide variety of instruments in many settings (e.g. timpani in an orchestra, drumset in a musical, mallets in a percussion quartet, etc.). It's the musical equivalent of ADD, and matches my own tendencies and attention span. If I had to practice one instrument all day long, I'd go crazy! This keeps me engaged finding new challenges and ways to collaborate, combine instruments, people, and passions.

EDGE: Your website describes the marimba as being 'like a xylophone, but bigger and more fabulous?' Can you elaborate?

Brian Calhoon: For anyone learning the alphabet as a child, the letter 'X' was usually accompanied by a drawing of a xylophone: a tiny toy, often rainbow-colored, sounding very sharp and bright and high pitched. Compared to other instruments, the piccolo is to the flute as the xylophone is to the marimba. Technically speaking, the range of the xylophone consists of about 3.5 octaves similar to the upper range of the piano. The marimba has a range of five octaves, starting with the low C below bass clef. The character of the marimba is warm, resonant and has a wider range than the xylophone. As a result, more music is successfully adapted to this beautiful instrument. Plus, it's over eight feet long -- taller than me in heels!

EDGE: You are also a singer -- were you torn in pursuing a career in music between playing an instrument or being a vocalist?

Brian Calhoon: Not really. I've always been more of a karaoke singer or a shower soloist and less interested in pursuing only voice (per reasons above). In fact, if I ever sing solo, without an instrument in front of me, I feel naked! Combining the marimba and singing was a perfect way to keep them both alive.

EDGE: The show mixes traditional cabaret material (Broadway, art songs and pop) but with the marimba as accompaniment. Why do you think it is such a good fit?

Brian Calhoon: The marimba is a relatively young and unknown instrument compared to other classical instruments (think violin, which has over 400 years of repertoire written for the instrument). As a result, we (marimba players) often borrow music from other instruments or commission composers to write for us. Audience members don't know what to expect to hear at a percussion or marimba concert, so there are no rules and the possibilities are endless. A typical 'Marimba Cabaret' will have covers of theater and pop tunes alongside 'classical' music for solo marimba (without my voice): J.S. Bach transcriptions (the classical word for 'covers') or brand new works by living composers. I'd like to think any musician could combine such a variety of music if they choose to.

From Sondheim to Imogen Heap

EDGE: Who else will be performing with you at Club Cafe?

Brian Calhoon: I am joined by my director and percussionist, Greg Jukes, who accompanies me on vibraphone and drumset. We are thrilled to spotlight three seasoned professional concert soloists: singers Christina English, Sophie Michaux, and Sonja Tengblad. These fabulous ladies perform around the country as soloists with orchestras as well as premiere new work written for women's vocal ensemble. On May 4, they let their hair down and sing some killer Sondheim standards and a new Imogen Heap adaptation for bowed marimba and female voices that I've wanted to perform for years.

EDGE: You have curated the program around a 'therapy' theme. Can you explain?

Brian Calhoon: In many ways, music is my therapy. It provides release and a meaningful way to express myself in ways I can't otherwise. I felt it natural to collect songs and stories that reflect the ability of music to be therapeutic, while also acknowledging themes we all experience: depression, anxiety, loss, medication. These topics are often considered taboo and not discussed in social situations. In a similar way, combining musical theater and pop tunes with classical percussion instruments could also be perceived as taboo or unacceptable in some circles. So, we undo the taboo together!

EDGE: What is the most unusual cover that you perform?

Brian Calhoon: Our cover of Radiohead's 'Creep' is probably our most unusual and most popular. We re-imagined this popular song by creating sections with different rhythmic feels, changing up the phrase lengths as well as adding a flashy instrumental break with 16th notes running up and down the marimba. In this clip, during a wordless interlude, you'll recognize the familiar tune (played on the vibraphone) floating over a J.S. Bach-inspired figuration. Radiohead meets J.S. Bach: now that's unusual.

EDGE: Is it difficult to play in heels? And what is your fascination with footwear?

Brian Calhoon: It's a challenge! I can only handle playing in heels for one or two songs. I feel okay admitting to this because I know I'm not alone: I've seen big name performers like Adele and Jill Scott do the same. But it has taught me to have the utmost respect for any person who wears heels with regularity.

Specific to playing the marimba, because I'm so tall, I have to raise the height of the marimba in order to play it properly. It has a height adjustment, though as evidenced by this photo, it's still not high enough. I literally max out the frame and it's still not quite tall enough. You'll see I have to bend my knees to play!

Regarding my fascination with footwear, I would say that these heels are the latest in my shoe sartorial crescendo. I've always had a little bit of a hidden statement I've wanted to make that started as a teenager painting my nails and dying my hair wild colors. As I've matured over the years, I've sought out (men's) shoes that pop and make a strong fashion statement. First it was brightly colored Adidas (bright orange or cobalt blue suede), then I grew up a little (and made more money) and discovered John Fluevog store and fell in love with his Boston Newbury St. store. I would get my shoe 'fix' from these (retail therapy!). Then I saw the should-be-famous dancer/DJ JBDubs perform in 'male drag with heels' and was inspired to purchase my first pair. While I personally don't do drag, I enjoy the juxtaposition and challenging of gender roles. I found myself turning to women's heels to intensify my shoe statement. I'm especially jealous that women have way more options and variety in shoes and fashion than men do, which is the result of silly societal expectation. I got bored with men's shoes!

The shoes & 'Marimba Cabaret': Similarly to combining genres of music that otherwise 'shouldn't go together' in one concert, I present as male and wear shoes that I 'shouldn't wear.' I say eff that. You do you. Undo the taboo and have a blast doing it.

Brian Calhoon's "Marimba Cabaret," directed and accompanied by Greg Jukes, will be performed on Thursday, May 4, 7:30 p.m. at Club Caf, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA. Upcoming shows: are Saturday, June 17, 7:30 p.m., at Club Caf, Club Caf, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA; and Sunday, June 18, 6 p.m. at Mechanics Hall, 519 Congress Street, Portland, ME. For more details, visit the Marimba Cabaret website.

Watch Brian Calhoon perform Radiohead's "Creep":

Watch this "Marimba Cabaret" preview reel:

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].