Raul da Gama, JazzdaGama

When Brandee Younger was born to her loving parents, it was clear that she was a gift from God to the world. But the little girl grew into a prodigious musician and has since returned the favour to The Big Guy. And she’s done that not only by playing the proverbial “instrument of the heavens“ – the instrument that has, in one form or another, has always caught the attention of The Almighty – but it would seem that today, three solo recordings under her belt, is playing it possessed as if of The Holy Spirit.

One can be forgiven for the perceived hyperbole as, truth be told, in the spare population of contemporary harpists playing Jazz, most of whom are infinitely more experienced in their service of the instrument, Miss Younger’s musicianship is drawing more attention than everyone else’s. Indeed, for all the blue notes that she plucks out of the air between the strings, she is (already) to the harp what Milt Jackson was (or must have been) to the vibraphone in his halcyon days. Miss Younger herself insists that this (her star-power) is not the case. She is full of admiration for her American contemporaries – particularly Zeena Parkins – and when asked why she thought that all of the harpists in Jazz (in America) were women she was quick to remind me that Casper Reardon wasn’t. Showing an admiration for the harpist who played with Paul Whiteman and Jack Teagarden and was active during the 1930’s.

While Miss Younger’s attention is currently focused on legendary Jazz harpists Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, she also expresses a certain reverence for – and, in the earlier part of her career as a composer and performer, been influenced by the great classical harpist Marcel Grandjany. The latter, a classical harpist, often graced the orchestras of Fritz Reiner, Vladimir Goldschmann, Serge Koussevitsky and George Szell (among others) and his repertoire was a big influence on Miss Younger – especially in the realm of composition, and when she first began to write her own material. It isn’t hard to discern how, or why, this had come to pass. Miss Younger was, after all, a classical harpist before she first followed her heart into the realm of Jazz music – something, it would appear, that she was destined to do.

All of this seems to have almost never come to pass for Miss Younger’s entry into the world of the harp was a happy accident. Visiting a friend and co-worker of her father’s one day, who had a close connection to music, the then-flutist, Miss Younger, discovered that the friend had a harp sitting in the house. She fell in love with the sound of the stringed-instrument and the rest is proverbial history. It wasn’t easy, Miss Younger says. Carrying her harp in and out of her house each time a performance date came up was a real effort. But as it takes a village – or in her case, a family – Miss Younger prevailed and was set on a path to… well plough her lonely furrow in the world of the harp.

For all the associations of the instrument with classical music some of which overflowed into Miss Younger’s history with the music and the instrument, her ears were also naturally attuned to more contemporary sounds; the rhythms of Jazz, Rhythm and Blues and Hip-Hop. Her sensibilities were awash with the waves of all of these musical styles as she absorbed lessons from playing all of the music that affected her enough to want to play all of it too. She is known to have told an interviewer that a teacher she once had – Karen Strauss, her first teacher, in fact – helped feed the flame within her by transcribing anything she liked in the realm of popular music. “I’m sure this helped me do what I do today,” Miss Younger once said.

Miss Younger also says, “Playing a number of instruments – and playing whatever I wanted to on them – helped me translate this wild penchant for braving the difficulties that the harp presented as I began to play Jazz on the harp in high school.” The ability to play across styles and blur the lines that separated each one must certainly have been instrumental I bringing Miss Younger to the attention of a variety of producers in music. It’s certainly what got her gigs with the likes of Ryan Leslie, who recommended her to the artist Cassie, and the bassist Derrick Hodge, who introduced her to Common; to Salaam Remi and most recently to Danny Bennett, Dahlia Ambach-Chapin, Todd Roberts and Mike Viola – the latter group of four being responsible for the diabolically brilliant A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper the Beatles tribute that celebrated 50 years of their iconic album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Miss Younger helped arrange (with Ravi Coltrane) and produce “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” adding her dreamy, celestial to the psychedelic aura of the famously puckish song.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of her playing is her ability to make the leap – her enormous harp in toe – from chamber music into the realm of popular music. And with that being the case, imagine how much more difficult it is to play Jazz with all of the changes that the music demands. Miss Younger likens it to playing some form of “Giant Steps” each and every time you step out to play. “Playing the harp is playing an absolute diatonic instrument,” she says. “Every time you have to change a key – literally translated as playing a “black” note; i.e., a ♯ or a ♭ – you have to change a pedal!” She tells an interesting story about the time when Gary Bartz played that very track “Giant Steps” on his 1978 recording Love affair. The chords change, famously, with literally every bar in the song, so he said to her, ‘Just come in and out as you please’… and the rest is history.”

In fact one can never really understand the impact of playing the harp – particularly in Jazz, with all the changes the music demands – especially when it comes to the pioneering work done by musicians such as Miss Ashby and Alice Coltrane. Ironically George Russell’s magical palimpsest, the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organizationcomes into play. Mr Russell’s concepts explained how it was possible to play modal music essentially in the Lydian mode, something that has captivated musicians since Miles Davis and John Coltrane and now continued by McCoy Tyner downwards. For the technically inclined: Modal music – based on modes; alternative tonalities (scales) that can be derived from the familiar major scale by starting on a different scale tone – uses diatonic scales that are not necessarily major or minor and does not use functional harmony as we understand it within tonality. The term modal is most often associated with the eight church modes. The tonal center of these modes is called its “final”. All the church modes use a pattern of half and whole steps that could be played on the white keys of a piano.

This also puts into perspective how modal music is a harpist’s delight. As – to repeat from above – “All the church modes use a pattern of half and whole steps that could be played on the white keys of a piano.” Now, align that with the fact that plucking or strumming the harp strings is like playing the equivalent of the piano’s white notes only. And now, here is what one refers to “the kicker” in today’s language: the melody of all Spiritual Music (Negro Spirituals, that is,) is written to be played on black notes only. So putting this into perspective to explain the ingenuity of American Jazz harpist such as Miss Ashby, Miss Coltrane and Miss Younger have done is to literally re-invent the instrument in the context of the very lingua franca of music itself. Why those three musicians in particular? Quite simply, because by definition, Jazz is “Black American Music”; it is the invention of the Black American which has now been adopted by the rest of the world in contemporary music.

It would now seem exquisitely natural for Miss Younger to have made her iconic album Soul Awakening – what might have been a debut album, had she not decided to shelve the project out of an abundance of modesty, until 2019 – her own musical palimpsest. It is a deeply moving and incredibly mature statement that first began its life seven years ago and was completed a year after that, in 2013. It is also, as Miss Younger says, the time when she came to work with saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and Antoine Roney, and bassist Dezron Douglas. Another musician she would give credit for is EJ Strickland, the drummer on that date. “For some of the things I’ve done – and continue to do – I absolutely need drums and bass,” she says. “The rhythm section plays a big role in my sound. On a professional level, because I never sought out everything I now have, it’s just icing on the cake,” she insists.

Somehow, it is almost uncanny how Miss Younger’s career seems to have been shaped up to that point in a manner eerily similar to the path on which Miss Ashby was also led. Miss Ashby with Earth, Wind and Fire, and Bill Withers among others until she broke through with Afro-Harping, her magnum opus, and Miss Younger on a path via Ryan Leslie, Derrick Hodge, Salaam Remi and others until her own magical (and literal) Soul Awakening; which brings us back to the analogy of Milt Jackson and the vibraphone. You see, while the trajectory of harp musicians has led them to re-reading chamber music on the harp in different settings, and even despite the pioneering work done by Miss Ashby and Alice Coltrane in interpreting the music of Jazz on the harp, something no one has really done consistently until Miss Younger came along is to unveil the ethereal soul of the mysterious and celestial “blue note” on the harp. And anyone who has heard Milt Jackson (as opposed to any other vibraphone musician) play will know exactly what this means. It’s literally a miraculous experience.

Read a review of Brandee Younger: Soul Awakening here

Brandee Younger with Dezron Douglas NPR Field Recordings performance

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