I had been thinking about authoring a blog on unusual instruments in jazz-bagpipes, oboe, cello, French horn and of course the instrument most firmly associated with the repertoire of classical orchestras; the harp.
Having just returned from a remarkable gig at the recently re-opened Forge in Camden Town, London by Alina Bzhezhinska the classically schooled harp maestro who over the last 10 years has devoted herself to jazz I am going to focus on the jazz harp exclusively, since as we shall see, it has played an important, albeit sporadic role within modern jazz over the years. Born in Ukraine and classically trained in Poland, Alina relocated to the UK in 2002 and for many years was the harp tutor at the Royal Conservatory in Scotland.
I first heard Alina with her frequent partner multi-reed player Tony Kofi at the Vortex in Hackney pre-Covid. The show was dedicated to the music of Alice Coltrane and what struck me was the power, elegance, and range of the harp in Alina’s hands both in improvisation and accompaniment. I had long been aware of Tony Kofi’s jazz chops-he plays in so many different jazz settings and has found a perfect locus for his playing on tenor and soprano sax with Alina.
This evening’s show was largely a showcase for Alina’s latest album Reflections which features her interpretation of music by Dorothy Ashby, Alice Coltrane, and two of Alice’s most significant musical partners, the recently departed Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson. Alina spoke very movingly of the occasion when she shared the stage with Pharaoh at the Barbican in London. Sanders had played and recorded numerously with both Alice & John Coltrane. The set included a shimmering duo ballad penned by Tony Kofi and dedicated to Pharaoh Sanders and a wonderful version of Fire drawn from the Henderson/Coltrane collaboration on the Blue Note album., The Elements. You will find both versions on my playlist
Do try and catch Alina if you can.
Dorothy Ashby 1932-1986
As far as I can tell the founding mother of the jazz harp was Dorothy Ashby,
Born, raised, and deeply immersed in the distinctive jazz environment of Detroit, Ashby toured and recorded extensively for 30 years from the early 50’s, most often in a trio format. She was wide-ranging in her musical choices as she played not just bop, but soul, Brazilian, African, Middle Eastern and like her contemporary (and other great jazz harpist Alice Coltrane) free jazz. Latterly Dorothy was heavily influenced by classical Japanese music.
In an interview towards the end of her life Dorothy reflected on the struggles associated with being a virtuoso on the harp.,
“It’s been maybe a triple burden in that not a lot of women are becoming known as jazz players. There is also the connection with black women. The audiences I was trying to reach were not interested in the harp, period—classical or otherwise—and they were certainly not interested in seeing a black woman playing the harp”
Alice Coltrane 1937-2007
Also, a Detroit native Alice Coltrane’s early professional career was as an accomplished pianist. She studied classical piano and was one of very few jazz musicians to study with the bebop piano master Bud Powell. In 1963 while playing in Terry Gibbs’ band she met and married John Coltrane and took over the piano chair from McCoy Tyner in Trane’s band, appearing with him until the end of his life, a period noticeable for a more free and deeply spiritual musical style. Towards the end of their musical collaboration Alice focused increasingly on the harp, and this became her instrument of choice for the remainder of her career. John and Alice’s son Ravi Coltrane is a highly accomplished professional saxophonist with a busy touring and recording schedule.
Following Trane’s early death in 1967 Alice immersed herself in Hindu mysticism and performed infrequently by the early 1990’s. Her career and influence has been re-assessed and undergone a renaissance in recent years -and not just by harpists. Both Alina and Brandee Younger are proud advocates of Alice Coltrane’s influence and legacy.
Brandee Younger, who is 40 was mentored by Jackie McLean who encouraged her to forge a career as a jazz harpist. She has featured in the bands of a number of jazz elders including Jack de Johnette, Pharoah Sanders, Reggie Workman, and Charlie Haden and, interestingly, Ravi Coltrane. Younger also appears frequently in non-jazz performance with symphony orchestras and on soul and hip hop recordings. She performs regularly with her husband, bassist Dezron Douglas. Brandee teaches on the music faculty of New York University.
My playlist comprises selections from the recordings of each of the four featured artists. I hope that listening to the tracks will encourage you to delve further into their work, both historic and contemporary.
Watch this space for a future feature on Rufus Harley-jazz bagpiper!