By Phil Freeman, Burning Ambulance
Jazz has a new harpist: Brandee Younger. Following in the footsteps of Alice Coltrane and particularly Dorothy Ashby, she’s blending classical technique with an appreciation for—and creative use of—hip-hop, R&B and funk grooves. Her studio debut as a leader, Wax & Wane, is out now. (Get it from Amazon.) It features flautist Anne Drummond, tenor saxophonistChelsea Baratz, bassist Dezron Douglas (playing electric rather than upright), drummerDana Hawkins and guitarist Mark Whitfield. The string duo Chargaux also appear on a few brief interludes.
Wax & Wane is decidedly more funk than jazz; its opening track, “Soul Vibrations,” is built on a groove that recalls Sly & the Family Stone, and Younger blends into the ensemble at first, rather than immediately seizing the lead. But when she does begin to solo, her sound is otherworldly and science-fictional, and her ability to pluck individual notes at high speed is almost reminiscent of a fusion-era guitarist rather than the shimmering glissandos typical of the harp (though she does that, too). Three of the tracks—the opener, “Afro Harping,” and the title piece—were originally recorded by Ashby, but Younger’s arrangements have a lushness that separates them from the earlier recordings, and the best pieces here, like the pulsing “Essence of Ruby” and the album-closing “Black Gold,” are Younger originals. Wax & Wane is a short record, offering seven tracks in under a half hour, but it provides a potent introduction to Younger’s work. (She can also be heard on two albums by saxophonists: Marcus Strickland‘s Of Song and Michael Campagna‘s Moments.) Fans of jazz harp, as well as flautist Bobbi Humphrey‘s early’70s Blue Note albums (Drummond is basically a co-lead voice on several tracks), will find this a highly enjoyable way to spend a half hour.
Younger answered questions via email.
The harp is an uncommon instrument – in jazz, and generally. What drew you to it, and who were your early inspirations?
My parents met a woman who played harp and thought that it would be interesting for me to learn about, since I was already involved in music. Then they learned that it was a scholarship instrument. End of story, LOL. My early inspirations, aside from my teacher (who did things like play on the QE2!) were really Alice Coltrane, Carlos Salzedo, Marcel Grandjany &Dorothy Ashby. It was really cool early on to hear the harp’s many capabilities.
Your album is relatively short—seven songs in less than half an hour—where most jazz musicians frequently go long, trying to fill up the whole CD. Why did you decide to make such a concise statement?
Since the record is narrowly one concept only—funky—we wanted to make a clear, somewhat bold statement and didn’t need much more. More will be said in the next record. This recording is truly made for vinyl!
I’m assuming you have a background in chamber and/or symphonic music as well as jazz—how does that experience impact your jazz work, in terms of improvisational methodology and stuff like that?
Yes, my background is in classical music. It has a major impact on everything that I play, so my style has sort of morphed into this blend of classical-jazz-spiritual, as a result of studying these styles.
What are your ambitions for future work? Can you see yourself going in an Alice Coltrane-ish direction, with strings and heavy orchestration, or are you going to continue exploring groove and R&B-influenced sounds like on this record?
Ah, Transfiguration 🙂
My next record, which is completed already, is more of a traditional jazz ensemble: bass, drums, harp and tenor sax. Well, at least I think that’s a traditional ensemble. It has a more diverse layout, with some groove-oriented music, Alice Coltrane-ish and more traditional sounds. After that, I’m scaling down and recording a solo record. I think it’s important for the harp to be viewed as a fully functioning instrument that can also stand on its own. After that, I may begin to look into some orchestrations—but with the right producer.
You’ve been a guest on a couple of other players’ albums—what have they wanted from a harpist?
Everyone wants something different. I’d say that most musicians want “colors” that can be achieved through swift arpeggios. Also, some folks favor the Alice Coltrane-esque glissandi, while others want the harp as a melody or rhythm instrument, because they want a lighter texture than what the piano offers.
What are the challenges of traveling to gigs with a harp, and of harp ownership generally? How often does it have to be tuned, for example, and how laborious a process is that?
Ugh. That’s the drag. It’s especially a drag in a major city like New York, where it’s often difficult to unload. Harpists in the city either drive a large vehicle or use a trained harp mover. If it’s an especially difficult situation, I minimize what I have to bring and take a van taxi. You need a few muscles. Harps have to be maintained and kept at a consistent temperature with the right amount of humidity. String upkeep has been tough as of late, due to an inconsistency in the gut supply. You’re looking at about $500 for a full set of strings (a concert grand harp has 47 strings) so when they’re breaking at record rates due to bad gut supply, it really grinds your gears! I know that’s probably TMI, but you asked. The harp has to be tuned daily. It should be tuned daily and the more it is tuned, the better it holds its pitch. Harpists carry tuning keys, so we tune it ourselves.
Do you have a particular brand/model of harp that you favor, the way pianists will prefer Bösendorfer to Steinway or vice versa?
Not particularly. I own and play Lyon & Healy brand harps, and they’re based in Chicago. However, I do like quite a few models from other harp brands here in the States, France & Italy.