Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Angel Headed Hip Harps


There's a Salvi concert-grand harp in my living room. But it's not mine. It's my wife's.

Whereas I didn't have the benefit of music lessons as a kid, my wife had nothing but.  Weekends were spent at Kiwanis competitions and summers were passed at retreats for pint-sized Puccinis.   At one music camp, she practiced several hours a day in the "harp shack," which, to my imagination, most resembles an outhouse or prison yard hot box.

Without even auditioning, she walked right into the faculty of music at the University of Toronto.  But two years later, she walked right back out when she finally confessed to herself – and more anxiously to others – that it wasn't the life for her.

So, in repose, her monumental instrument assumes the role of the proverbial elephant in the living room.  As eventually with all harps, it's pulling itself apart under the tension of its own strings.  Time is approaching the literal break point when the harp will need to be rebuilt, piece-by-piece…in Chicago.  Although my wife infrequently plays her old harp, it was for so many years such an all-consuming part of her identity.   What's she to do?  Sell it?  Repair it at great expense?  If she fixes it, will she feel obligated or burdened to pick it up again?  It's ultimately her choice.  I don't pressure her when it comes to her harp.

I do, however, wish she could readily hand over to me her years of talent and theoretical expertise.  Some days I want to eat her brain and gain her knowledge.

Lately, I've amassed a decent collection of jazz harp records.  And even though I appreciate that my wife’s classical training doesn't easily translate into avant-garde jazz theory, I secretly entertain the hope that these funky glissandi may elicit some in-house accompaniment.  In the mean time, we've got some dope wax to enjoy.

The Penguin Guide to Jazz attributes the honour of first jazz harpist to Casper Reardon (b.1907, d.1941).   After leaving the Philadelphia and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras, he played shows on Broadway and cut a few sides with big band leaders Jack Teagarden and Paul Whiteman.  By my uneducated estimation, Reardon is a bit of a novelty act, although not unpleasant.




Dorothy Ashby (b.1932, d.1986) was the first true artist to evince the harp to be a serious jazz contender.  Unlike Reardon, who came to jazz late, Ashby was immersed in it from the get go.  She attended high school with Donald Byrd, married jazz drummer John Ashby, hosted a jazz radio show in Detroit, and paid her dues with Louis Armstrong's band.  And that was all before recording an impressive eleven studio albums between 1957 and 1984.  In a 1962 poll, the jazz publication Downbeat rightly named her among the best musicians on the scene.

As with many jazz musicians keeping up with the times, her albums run the gambit from straight ahead hard bop in the 1950s, to afro-soul in the 1960s, to orientalist experiments in the 1970s.

In addition to her own superb albums, she has sat in on some seriously soulful sessions, namely: Bobbi Humphrey’s Fancy Dancer, Stanley Turrentine’s Everybody Come OutRick James’ Bustin Out of L-SevenBobby Womack’s The PoetMinnie Riperton’s Adventures in Paradise, Bill Whithers’ +’Justments, Earth, Wind & Fire’s Spirit and All n AllThe Chocolate Jam Co.’s The Spread of the CenturyJohnny Hammond’s Forever Taurusand Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.

Although I can - and will - boast that I discovered Ashby of my own accord, by the time I was hip to her she was already a well-known personality in the hip-hop world.  We can thank producers, such as J Dilla, Premiere, Madlib, RZA, Pete Rock and even Kanye for keeping Ashby's records in circulation.


“There’s a Small Hotel” - Hip Harp, Prelude, 1958 (reissued 1972)

Discogs: Hip Harp 



“Soul Vibrations” - Afro Harping, Cadet, 1968

Discogs: Afro Harping



“Canto De Ossanha” – Dorothy’s Harp, Cadet, 1969

Discogs: Dorothy's Harp




“Myself When Young” - The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby, Cadet, 1970






“Mounds” - Chocolate Jam Co. ft. Dorothy Ashby, The Spread of the Future, Epic, 1979.




And Ashby's competition for the title of greatest jazz harpist: Alice Coltrane (b.1937, d.2007), second wife of the late great saxophonist John Coltrane, and late aunt to the abstract beat conductor, Flying Lotus.  Family members aside, Alice Coltrane is - in her own right - a sublime instrumentalist and composer.  While her first notable recording dates were as the pianist replacing McCoy Tyner in her husband's 1960s ensemble, she's best remembered for her sonic adventures, unifying jazz modes with Middle Eastern, North African and Indian tones.  Her albums onImpulse are thematically steeped in Egyptian mythology and Hindu philosophy.

Monastic Trio, her first solo album, and one made in memoriam of her recently deceased husband, continues the work she did with John.  It’s a bluesy mix of both piano and harp work.  I don’t mean to undermine this earlier effort, but things start to get really interesting after she checks herself into the ashram.

I am eagerly awaiting my original press of her third album Ptah the El Daoud, which is in the mail as I write this post.  On it, Alice plays, again, both piano and harp.  John Coltrane’s disciple Pharoah Sanders shares the saxophone spotlight with Joe Henderson, each in opposite stereo channels.  They also double up on alto flutes for the track Blue Nile.  Ron Carter, on bass, and Ben Riley, on drums, keep things proper.  The album cover has an unexpected, yet welcomed, heavy metal underworld vibe.

Journey in Satchindananda, the eponymous ode to her swami, features a transcendental meld of rhythmic drones from Cecil McBee on bass, angelic arpeggios from Coltrane on harp, and ecstatic blowing from Sanders on sax.  It’s arguably Coltrane’s best-known work.  I often play this album while at work when I desperately need to go to my happy place.

Her next few albums maintain similar spiritual aesthetics toSatchindananda, although Universal Consciousness is much freer, and the symphonic Lord of Lords, with its sixteen-piece classical orchestra, is elevated beyond sumptuousness.

Unlike Ashby, Coltrane didn’t lend herself out to other musicians.  However, she reciprocated to Joe Henderson’s appearance on Ptah the El Daoud by appearing on his album Elements, where she plays piano, harp, tamboura and harmonium.  Also, under the Hindu honourific Turiya Coltrane, she and (Devadip) Carlos Santana released a lush, cosmic ball-tripper, called Illuminations

After Coltrane left Impulse for Warner and Verve, she was as likely, if not more likely, to be featured on piano and organ.  Or to be chanting Hare Krishna hymnals.  Which is not to discount her otherwise beautiful later albums.  They’re just not harp albums.


“Blue Nile” – Ptah, The El Daoud, Impulse, 1970




“Journey in Satchidananda” – Journey in Satchindananda, Impulse, 1971




“Radhe-Shyam” – Transcendence, Warner, 1977.

Discogs: Transcendence





“Angel of Air” – Illuminations, Columbia, 1974

Discogs: Illuminations





“Earth” – Joe Henderson ft. Alice Coltrane, The Elements, Milestone, 1974

Discogs: The Elements




I truthfully admit that I know nothing about contemporary jazz harpists, but I can direct your whetted appetites to the International Jazz Harp Foundation

1 comment:

  1. My love, thank you this chronicle of my musical experiences. I wonder if my classical training had been steered in this direction if things would have turned out differently. Reading this inspires me to learn more about jazz harp and attempt to play some of my own.

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