The harp is far from a common jazz instrument and the list of famous jazz harpists is a short one. In fact, the list of significant jazz harpists probably numbers about two: Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby. There have been a few others here and there, but none that had the impact of those two. But wait, there’s a new contender on the scene: Brandee Younger. Sunday night at Dazzle, Younger stated her case for expanding that short list of significant jazz harpists.
The harp brings a different sound to jazz. Often associated, in popular culture, with angels floating among the clouds, it seems antithetical to jazz’s often boisterous, gritty, slice-of-life soundscape. But the scope and sounds of jazz are wide and if a player can make an unusual instrument work somewhere within the big jazz tent, he or she will be welcomed.
At age 39, Younger has been playing for several years in a variety of contexts ranging from classical to hip hop. She’s also worked as an educator at several institutions of higher education including New York University and the New School, among others. But it was her albums on Impulse! that started to catch the attention of many in the jazz world, Somewhere Different (Impulse! 2021) and Brand New Life (Impulse! 2023).
Sunday night at Dazzle, Younger brought all her myriad influences with her along with bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Allan Mednard. She filled her set with tunes from those aforementioned albums, alternating with songs by her harp heroes, Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby (who else?). She began her set with “Rama, Rama,” a composition by Alice Coltrane. This one had an ethereal, floating atmosphere tailor made for the heavenly sonics of her pedal harp. Her original, “Love and Struggle” from Somewhere Different followed. This one, as befitting the title, had a bit more of an edge to it. Another original, “Unrest” followed. She explained that she wrote that song during the pandemic and was inspired by events happening right outside her window.
Another Alice Coltrane piece followed, “Turiya and Ramakrishna” and then her own “Moving Target” from Brand New Life. That one incorporated a busy rhythm section, especially the drum part. The hyperactive rhythmic activity contrasted nicely with the relaxed harp floating overhead. She then incorporated her other heroine, Dorothy Ashby, into the act with her composition “You’re a Girl for One Man Only,” which also appears on Brand New Life.
A solo piece followed, Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic” also from Brand New Life. Younger explained that it was Ashby that played the harp part on Wonder’s original recording which appeared on Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla, 1976). “Spirit U Will” was from Somewhere Different and had one of the sharper edges of the evening, again creating tension with the rhythm section while the harp drifted above the fray in a gauzy reverie.
Perhaps Younger’s biggest challenge of the evening was the Denver Nuggets. Making their way to the NBA finals for the first time in team history, Game 2 of the series began only a few blocks from Dazzle shortly before Younger’s first set. She thanked the audience more than once for choosing her band over the game. Indeed, the first set sold out, even in the face of championship hoops. But the Nuggets have played dozens of games in Denver this season. What Denver hasn’t seen is jazz harp played like this. It was a one-of-a-kind evening.
Set List Rama, Rama (Alice Coltrane)
Love and Struggle (Original)
Unrest (Pandemic piece, original)
Turiya and Ramakrishna (Alice Coltrane)
Moving Target (Original)
You’re a Girl for One Man Only (Dorothy Ashby)
If It’s Magic (Stevie Wonder)
Spirit U Will (Original)
Tickled Pink (Original)
The Band Brandee Younger, pedal harp
Allan Mednard, drums
Rashaan Carter, bass
Brandee Younger at Dazzle Denver June 4, 2023 First Set By Geoff Anderson