© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Though the harp has been used frequently in jazz orchestral recordings, there have been only a handful of improvising jazz harpists. Among them are Casper Reardon, Adele Girard (both active in the 1930s), and, more recently, Corky Hale, Dorothy Ashby, David Snell, and Alice Coltrane (better known as a pianist).”
- Christopher Washburne, Miscellaneous Instruments in Jazz, The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Bill Kirchner, editor.
“Harp - A plucked instrument consisting of a set of strings, a neck, to which the strings are attached, and a resonator. The modern, Western harp is a "double-action" instrument: it has a set of pedals that enables the player to sharpen each string by either one or two semitones. Because the harp's strings are not damped but rather allowed to vibrate freely, the sounds of the individual tones overlap; this and the instrument's quiet, velvety sound make the harp poorly suited to the loud dynamics and precise rhythms of much jazz, and its cumbersome system of strings and pedals makes the playing of rapid jazz chord progressions nearly impossible.
Nevertheless a few players have surmounted these difficulties. Casper Reardon recorded as a harpist with Jack Teagarden in 1934, Adele Girard, the wife of Joe Marsala, played harp in his groups from 1937, and Corky Hale (Merrilyn Cecelia Hecht) recorded with the singer Kitty White (1954), as the leader of an all-star West Coast jazz group (1956), and with Anita O'Day (1956). Later Alice Coltrane used the instrument in bland, meditative modal jazz tunes. The finest exponent of the jazz harp is Dorothy Ashby, whose astounding facility enabled her to become an accomplished bop soloist.”
- Barry Kernfeld, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz
Dorothy Ashby (1932-86)
***(*) In A Minor Groove
Prestige PCD 24120 Ashby; Frank Wess (ft; Eugene Wright, Herman Wright (b); Roy Haynes, Art Taylor (d). 3-12/58. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz describes Ashby as 'the only important bop harpist', which might seem a rather empty accolade, given a somewhat scant subscription to the instrument in this music. On balance, though, it's fair comment. Ashby came to notice in her early twenties, playing with no less a man than Louis Armstrong. Remarkably, she saw a place for herself in the new idiom and managed to fit her seemingly unwieldy instrument to the contours of an essentially horn-dominated style. There are affinities between her harp playing and some contemporary guitar stylings, notably Wes Montgomery's, but she also learned something from bebop pianists like Bud Powell, bringing an unusually dark tonality and timbre to a notoriously soft-voiced instrument. Ashby's determination to lead her own groups allowed her to develop a personal language and style.
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.
“Miss Ashby is taking care of business, which is quite a job with this traditionally clumsy instrument.”
- Kenny Dorham as quoted in Down Beat magazine
Did you know that there is a Jazz Harp Foundation?
There is and it is based in The Netherlands and you can find out more about it by visiting its website via this link.
I didn’t know a lot about Jazz harpists although I worked a gig with one and the sound of the music reminded me of a phrase that the late drummer Paul Motian used while working with pianist Bill Evans after the early death of bassist Scott LaFaro: “The music got dialed down so low that I felt like I was playing on pillows.”
What prompted this post and the research that precedes it was the arrival of a new CD by Jazz harpist Carol Robbins that features her in the company of a sextet with trumpet, tenor sax and guitar as the lead voices!
And to borrow a phrase from Richard Cook and Brian Morton, the result is that -
Remarkably, … [Carol] managed to fit her seemingly unwieldy instrument to the contours of an essentially horn-dominated style.
Aside from surrounding herself with sympathetic and sensitive musicians, the way in which she has “managed to fit in” is by creating compositions that are essentially voiced around the sonority of a harp.
It is a brilliant solution made even more so by the engaging and interesting melodic themes on the album all of which are Carol’s original compositions.
These are masterfully described in detail in the following media release by Jim Eigo of Jazz Promo Services who is handling the PR for the recording.
“Jazz harpist Carol Robbins' new CD "Taylor Street"(Jazzcats-109) - Street Date: January 6, 2017 - features nine eclectic original compositions showcasing her unique talents along with those of her eminent musical collaborators. Billy Childs, Bob Sheppard and Larry Koonse, fellow group members in Childs' acclaimed Jazz Chamber Ensemble join her. Bassist Darek Oles and drummer Gary Novak form her world-class rhythm section and trumpeter Curtis Taylor and electric bassist Ben Shepherd are prominently featured.
Piano, drums and bass provide a backdrop for an explorative harp improvisation, which sets up "The Flight", a straight ahead jazz burner. This tune features piano, soprano sax and trumpet solos.
“Deep Canyon" was inspired by the winding, lush hills of California's Benedict Canyon. Curtis Taylor's rich, dark tone lyrically interprets the melody and harp and guitar solos follow.
"Taylor Street", the title track, is a witchy, mesmerizing jam featuring a grooving electric bass solo followed by funky choruses on Fender Rhodes and harp. The title references the street in Chicago's Little Italy where Robbins' Italian grandparents and mother lived.
Trumpet and tenor sax unite to harmonize the melody of "Full Circle", a buoyant jazz waltz. The piece traverses disparate harmonic zones winding up with a repeated bluesy riff. Harp, guitar and trumpet and piano have the solos.
The aptly named "Trekker" evokes an excursion through some unknown landscape. Asian and desert sonorities are woven into this jazz journey. Bassist Darek Oles plays a beautiful, rubato intro and then sets up an insistent bass line. Harp and piano solos are followed by group improvisations, which feature everyone.
As its title suggests, "Smooth Ride" comes close to the smooth jazz genre. A kmd of rhythmic ballad, it features solos on Fender Rhodes and harp.
"The Chill", the second jazz waltz on the CD, is a humorous, mischievous tune with playful muted trumpet and tenor sax harmonizing the melody. It features a languid and swinging tenor solo followed by choruses on harp and guitar.
"Grey River" is the project's only true ballad. It is hauntingly beautiful and features the transparent strings of Robbins’ harp, sparse piano and the mournful tones of Bob Sheppard's clarinet.
In "The Local" Robbins summons forth her R&B chops. She delivers a bold, rhythmic harp solo, which is followed by a grooving tenor sax solo from Bob Sheppard. The incomparable Billy Childs turns in a funky chorus on Fender Rhodes.
"Taylor Street" is a departure for Robbins. Her writing here explores several musical genres. Her signature lyricism lives on in the ballad "Grey River" and this project brings new attitudes and expressions through both R&B and traditional jazz. She proves once again that the classical concert harp can inspire the listener in the context of jazz.”
After listening to Taylor Street, to paraphrase Kenny Dorham by saying that Carol Robbins is taking care of business, … with this traditionally clumsy instrument,” would be an understatement. Judge for yourself by listening to the music on the video montage that follows the relevant contact information.
Artist Website: www.carolrobbins.net
Label Website: www.iazzcatsproductions.com
Media Contact: Jim Eigo - firstname.lastname@example.org