Whether you call it pushing the envelope, thinking outside the box, or just plain bending the rules, the boldly independent harpist and composer Brandee Younger creates a genre-crossing, smart, soulful, freewheeling, happy hybrid of hipness.
Ecumenically and elegantly, Younger’s concert harp embraces everything from classical and jazz to funk and hip-hop. Her mellifluous musings move from meditative spirituality to out-there astral/celestial sounds, to earthy, swinging bebop grooves and beyond.
Younger, an innovator with an appreciation for roots and tradition, marches to the beat of her own drum while creating fresh, original music.
A visionary in-the-making, the 32-year-old conservatory-trained harpist — who earned her bachelor’s from the University of Hartford’s Hartt School and master’s from NYU — is celebrating the release of her new, funk-layered, melodically drenched CD, Wax & Wane.
Her fine band includes Dezron Douglas, an acclaimed, young bassist and Hartford native who was one of her jazz-enlightened friends and colleagues back in her undergraduate years on UofH’s West Hartford campus.
Back then, the bright, inquisitive Long Island native’s focus was on mastering the classical harp repertoire, even while her growing interest in jazz was being nurtured through her contact with Hartt’s prestigious Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz. Especially through the influence of the noted jazz bassist and esteemed, empathetic Hartt professor, Nat Reeves.
A longtime pillar of the jazz brain trust at the McLean Institute, Reeves spotted something special in the gifted, articulate undergrad harp student.
In a step towards raising Younger’s dawning jazz consciousness, Reeves introduced her to the celebrated saxophonist, Kenny Garrett, who shed more light on the potential for individual expression in jazz and improvisation.
Younger’s classical training was so ingrained in her that this brave new world of creating in the moment seemed intriguing but alien to her regimen of playing written pieces.
As a harp-studying teenager immersed in European classical music, in fact, Younger hadn’t even had her first encounter of the close kind with harp improvisations until, at 15, she became mesmerized by a recording by the legendary Alice Coltrane (wife of John Coltrane and mother of Ravi Coltrane) on an album her parents had bought for her.
“It sounded so much cooler than the method book I was working on at the time,” Younger said by phone from her Harlem apartment. “I had never really picked up the harp to play anything but classical music while I was in school. It wasn’t until near graduation time at Hartt when Nat Reeves introduced me to Kenny Garrett that I started to branch out.”
As part of that branching out, she has since performed with many jazz luminaries, including Pharoah Sanders, Charlie Haden, Butch Morris, Reggie Workman, and Bill Lee, as well as with hip-hop and R&B artists Lauryn Hill, Common, John Legend, and Drake.
In 2007, in a major turning point in her career, the harpist got a call from none other than Ravi Coltrane to play at a memorial for his mother who had died earlier that year.
“I was very young and on stage with all these masters. After that I began to work more with Ravi. He told me that he really likes the harp styles of his mother; Dorothy Ashby (a groundbreaking harpist who brought the once seeming anarchy of bebop to the celestial instrument); and Carlos Salzedo (the towering classical harp genius and virtuoso).
“What that meant to me was that Ravi wanted elements of the spirituality of his mom’s playing, the straight-ahead quality of Dorothy Ashby and the classical quality of Carlos Salzedo.
“That is what my sound has morphed into. It’s sort of like I mix it all up in a bowl in a blender and out pops this sound that may be hard to identify, but includes all those qualities.”
Wax & Wane, with its seven, groove-driven selections, pairs Younger with flutist Anne Drummond, tenor saxophonist Chelsea Baratz; Dezron Douglas, who puts aside his double bass for electric bass; drummer Dana Hawkins, plus guitarist Mark Whitfield, along with periodic string seasonings by the duo, Chargaux.
While Wax & Wane thrives and drives on a heavy funk vibe, it also exudes a variety of moods, right from the opener, “Soul Vibrations,” an exotic reverie, to the finale, “Black Gold,” a motherlode of funk-fueled flights of fancy. Cozily cushioned textures and atmospherics prevail throughout.
“Wax & Wane,” the CD’s title tune, struts confidently with a catchy melody, mixing swagger with soul. The poetically titled “Ebony Haze” paints with the palette of contemporary impressionism and funk chamber music.
“Afro Harping”is Younger’s tribute to Ashby, who, along with the iconic Alice Coltrane, is a catalytic and spiritual inspiration in her quest to expand the harp’s stylistic horizons beyond traditional boundaries. Her new CD marks the latest step in her evolving celebration of the modern soul and contemporary consciousness of the venerable instrument with roots in antiquity.
Younger described her release as “a short statement of vinyl recording length” with “one very specific concept of just funky.”
“I’m not even sure what the accurate classification of it is, but that’s sort of the beauty of it all. Why does it even have to be classified?” she said, reflecting her disdain for the neat, claustrophobic categories that critics love so much.
Breaking down conventional barriers by integrating contemporary styles with straight-head and classical music, she suggested, might even have the very positive side effect of attracting a sorely needed young demographic into the aging jazz fold.
“If it means you play a very traditional classical piece and a straight-ahead piece and then something that will grab a younger audience, I think that’s fine since children are our future. They’re next.” she said. “If we want young people to embrace the tradition, we have to introduce it to them in a way that they can like it, understand it and relate to it.
“Play some Bach, some Ellington, and then you grab them and rope them in. It’s a way to keep the music alive.”