In 1979, Palo Alto resident Bob Zander received an unusual gift from a friend: a rectangular wooden box, laden with a row of slender metal tines and punctured with a small hole. It was an instrument called a kalimba (also known as a "thumb piano"), and it would become Zander's musical outlet for the next 40 years.
"Thumbnail Sketches," Zander's new double album released this fall, carries the listener through this period. One song is named after a small park in Minnesota near where he lived for many years; the final tune "Ann" is named for his wife. More cryptic titles also have meaning. "Embryonic Capers," for example, is about his daughter kicking in the womb, and "Almost Oriana" refers to the difficult birth that left her with a pale, white face, like the sky during dawn -- "oriana."
An affable man, Zander, now 61, is quick to laugh and has an appetite for self-deprecation. He is a fourth-grade teacher in Fremont and lives with his wife (a Palo Alto elementary school teacher) in the same downtown Palo Alto house that he was raised in. The 25-track album, he said, took about 14 years to produce.
"A dream of mine is for some young person, some young music lover, to hear this CD and for it to have a positive impact on his or her life," Zander said. "Maybe they'll start playing the kalimba or it'll get them into African music, jazz music or jazz rock."
The music oscillates between these genres and combines them; Zander blends his sound with that of longtime collaborators on piano, guitar, bass, violin, flute and sax. But it's hard not to focus on the sound of the kalimba, which is at once vibrant, metallic and ethereal, like a friend speaking to you underwater.
The instrument's 15 metal tines are plucked with the thumbs -- hence the album title to produce a six-note scale that repeats itself two and a half times. Its construction originates from the mbira, a traditional instrument used across Eastern and Southern Africa, but the kalimba is the Americanized version, Zander said. It lacks the mbira's second layer of tines that serve as the bass line, and holds a prominent position in "world beat" music that fuses Western music with traditional world music.
"I'm playing it in my own way," Zander said when asked if he'd received pushback for playing an instrument originating in other cultures. "I'm not trying to play African music, I use it to play more world beat, jazz rock music ... and again, that goes back to my early jazz rock listening."
As a young kid growing up in the 1960s, Zander was into classic pop and rock of the era such as the Beatles, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. But during his freshman year at Palo Alto High School, the Beatles broke up and Janis Joplin and Hendrix died within weeks of each other. In a music class that same year -- Zander's first instrument was the drums -- he heard Miles Davis and John Coltrane for the first time. He never looked back.
The album displays this strong jazz influence, and the kalimba does not appear on every track. Because Zander never learned to read or write music and appreciates a loosey-goosey, improvisational approach to composition, he wrote some tunes on kalimba and others on piano or drums. His previous record, "Skyline to the Sea," had only kalimba tunes, but because of the kalimba's fixed scale, he wanted "Thumbnail Sketches" to have tunes in varying keys.
Writing, recording and mixing the entire project was an arduous and expensive process. After college at Sonoma State University, Zander moved to Minnesota to get a second degree, where he met fellow musicians and his wife. He began recording songs on cassette tapes, many of which became the basis of the full album. The album was recorded and mixed in Minnesota, which meant many trips back and forth once he and Ann returned to California.
The distance made for an unconventional approach: Zander would send the other musicians the skeleton of a melody, and they'd call him to play their ideas over the phone. Now that it's finally finished, he's not sure where the next few years will take him.
"I really love this project -- I'm really proud of it," Zander said. "I really wanted to make it as good as I could, because I thought I might not do it again."
The album, which is available for streaming and purchase at bobzander.bandcamp.com, has left him feeling reflective on the people and places that have defined his life. In a way, the album is a love letter.
"That's honestly one of the great things about composing your own music," Zander added. "You can compose music for people you love, and it's kind of a unique thing."