A harp player, composer and educator based in New-York, Brandee Younger belongs to this new generation of musicians reawakening the practice of the classical harp as a jazz instrument. If Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby remain the two towering figures associated with the instrument, harpists like Nala Sinephro, Alina Bzhezhinska, Nailah Hunter and Brandee Younger are slowly rejuvenating the canon.
Following on from her exquisite lockdown album Force Majeure (2020) with bassist Dezron Douglas and Somewhere Different in 2021, Brandee Younger returns to her suite of albums revisiting the repertoire of Dorothy Ashby initiated with Wax and Wane in 2016 and Soul Awakening in 2019. Recorded in drummer Makaya McCraven’s studio in Chicago, with whom she has collaborated extensively since Universal Beings in 2018, Brand New Life features reworks, never-heard before Dorothy Ashby originals as well as new compositions. Released on 23 March 2023 last, it is Brandee Younger’s second album for Impulse!
A genuine trailblazer from Detroit, Dorothy Ashby pioneered an early jazz fusion with pop, soul, funk and a wider repertoire of Latin and Eastern rhythms. The musician started recording professionally as early as 1957 with The Jazz Harpist, eleven years prior to Alice Coltrane’s début as a leader. Her three Richard Evans-produced albums for the Cadet Records, namely Afro-Harping (1968), Dorothy’s Harp (1969) and The Rubáiyát of Dorothy Ashby (1970) have made a lasting impression and are all infused with an incredible groove. The latter album is also the only one which features Dorothy Ashby on vocals and on the koto, the Japanese plucked instrument which features on the cover. But as a female and black jazz harpist, Dorothy Ashby never achieved the recognition she deserved during her lifetime. Her back catalogue of 11 albums as a leader more or less fell off the radar after her death from cancer in 1986.
The intro of “For Pete’s Sake” by Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth is the rhythm and bass of “Come Live with Me”, which is probably one of Ashby’s most sampled recordings. Then “Fakin Jax” (Inl ft. Pete Rock) sent me! At first, I had no idea I was listening to “Cause I Need it” [from “Dorothy’s Harp”]. These were probably – unknowingly – my introduction to Dorothy Ashby. Brandee Younger
Yet, it is probably through her work as a session musician in the 1970s that the general public came across Dorothy Ashby’s music. She has worked with Bill Withers, Billy Preston, Bobby Womack, Earth, Wind & Fire and many more, but her contribution to Stevie Wonder’s “If it’s Magic” on the hugely successful 1976 Songs in the Key of Life stands out. Brand New Life concludes with the harp section of the song. The hip-hop and electronic scene from the 1990s onwards was also instrumental in bringing Dorothy Ashby’s music to the attention of a younger audience via samples which can be heard on hundreds of tracks from Pete Rock, Jay Z, 9th Wonder, Flying Lotus, Drake, J Dilla, Bonobo or Madlib among many others.
For hip-hop producers, what was so attractive about Dorothy’s music was the way she played the harp. When the 1970s came, there was a new era of music – there was funk and soul. She incorporated that with her harp playing. I wanted to try something new like fusing jazz into hip-hop beats and she was a perfect blueprint to experiment with. Pete Rock
On Brand New Life, most tracks adhere to a minimal template of harp, bass (Rashaan Carter), drums (Makaya McCraven) and vibraphone (Joel Ross) or vocals. In doing so, the harpist also injects a new energy through the prism of hip-hop by inviting contributions from the renowned producers through which she serendipitously came across Dorothy Ashby’s music in the first place while growing up – “Livin’ and Lovin’ in my Own Way” features Pete Rock while “The Windmills of your Mind”, a 1968 song by French composer Michel Legrand which has been covered by dozens of artists since, features hip-hop record producer 9th Wonder.
In the 1960s, Dorothy Ashby and her husband founded the Ashby Players, a theatre company which produced plays exploring issues relevant to the African American community. The harpist composed many songs for these plays which were never released commercially. Two of these tracks, namely “You’re a Girl for one Man Only” and “Livin’ and Lovin’ in my Own Way” resurface on Brand New Life.
There are superb vocal contributions from Maimouna Youssef aka Mumu Fresh on the title track, and the dub-tinged “Dust” features singer songwriter and bass player Meshell Ndegeocello. Indebted to the radical vision and dedication of a black female musician from the late 1950s onwards, Brand New Life is a luminous and moving celebration of the concert harp as a solo instrument on the contemporary jazz and hip-hop scene.
A new vinyl boxset featuring Dorothy Ashby’s first six studio albums has just been released on 9 June 2023 last on the New Land label. With Strings Attached, 1957-1965 is accompanied by a 44-page booklet and a foreword by Brandee Younger.