Jazz Meets Harp - Five Recordings

On The Corner Masthead


November 9, 2016 | by Rusty Aceves

Dorothy Ashby

Still considered a foreign voice in jazz by many listeners, the harp has connections to the music as an improvising instrument that go back to the mid 1950s, when harpists Dorothy Ashby and Corky Hale appeared on the scene, releasing their debut albums – Ashby’s The Jazz Harpist and Hale’s Modern Harp – in 1957. Though Hale’s contributions have largely faded over time, mainly through her move to session work and association with pop and easy listening, Ashby remains a steadfastly relevant figure in jazz history. As an African-American woman in a heavily male-dominated industry playing a decidedly unorthodox instrument, she led a successful career that stands as a triumph against adversity, providing inspiration for generations of superlative musicians to follow.

First rising to prominence when she replaced pianist McCoy Tyner in her husband John Coltrane's working band in 1966, Alice Coltrane performed extensively as a harpist on the influential albums she led in the wake of John Coltrane's death, bringing a fresh, exploratory approach to the instrument. 

Today, a number of fine harpists are working in the genre, including Carol Robbins, Destiny Muhammad, Lori Andrews, Deborah Henson-Conant, Christa Grix, Park Stickney and Brandee Younger, among others. 

As we await next week's performances by the astounding pianist Hiromi that will feature duets with Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda, we take a look at five tracks that showcase the harp in jazz.

Dorothy Ashby: “Little Sunflower” from Afro-Harping (1968)

A list documenting the harp in jazz must acknowledge the towering influence of pioneering harpist Dorothy Ashby. This cover of Freddie Hubbard’s classic “Little Sunflower” from Ashby’s perennially hip 1968 release Afro-Harping is a beautiful introduction to her artistry, combining subtle exoticism with the fluid melodic approach that was her signature.

Alice Coltrane: "Journey in Satchidananda" from Journey in Satchidananda (1971)

The title track from Coltrane’s landmark 1971 Impulse! album dedicated to the teachings of Swami Satchidananda is a swirling, exploratory journey that exemplifies spiritual and musical path taken by the harpist and pianist throughout her life. It features saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali who came to prominence in the bands of Coltrane’s late husband John Coltrane.

Edmar Castañeda: “Sabrosón” from Entre Cuerdas (2009)

With a singular style that employs seemingly limitless technique and a euphoric sense of melodicism, Edmar Castañeda combines influences from the jazz tradition and folkloric approaches from his native Colombia. This kaleidoscopic track culled from his 2009 release Entre Cuerdas amply demonstrates why artists including bassist Marcus Miller, drummer Dafnis Prieto, and pianist Hiromi have sought him as a collaborator.

Brandee Younger: “Dorothy Jeanne” from Supreme Sonacy Vol. 1 (2015)

This deeply funky and gorgeously realized tribute to innovative harpist Dorothy Ashby, taken from Revive Music and Blue Note’s 2015 compilation Supreme Sonacy Vol. 1, was many fans’ introduction to the brilliant young harpist. She has become a major name in jazz, working with Ravi Coltrane and Jack DeJohnette and releasing the superb full-length album Wax & Wane in 2016.

Destiny Muhammad: “Festival 1” from Festival (2016)

The Bay Area’s Destiny Muhammad carries on the jazz harp tradition on the local scene, performing Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda for the SFJAZZ Hotplate series and working with artists including Eddie Gale, Marcus Shelby, and Ambrose Akinmusire. This track was taken from her recent live release Festival.

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