Based in New-York, Brandee Younger is a young jazz harpist who is in the process of rejuvenating a style still dominated by the towering influence of her historic peers Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane. As a composer and teacher, the musician is one of the rare contemporary jazz harpists recording today either as a solo artist, as leader of her own ensemble or as a highly sought-after sidewoman.
Following on from her Prelude début EP in 2011, Soul Awakening was recorded in 2012 but only self-released on 7 June 2019 last. Alongside the three other full-length LPs she has released since, the new record reinvigorates the harp’s status as a solo instrument on the jazz scene.
The 47 strings concert harp is generally heard in large classical orchestras, but its complexity, weight, bulk and cost make it a challenging instrument to study, never mind transport to recording studios and concert halls to perform. When it comes to jazz, the instrument is rarely heard, but two female musicians stand out in jazz history.
American jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby established the classical harp as a solo jazz instrument from the late 1950s onwards and is perhaps best remembered for her 1968 Afro-Harping LP and for the extraordinary and underrated The Rubyaiyat of Dorothy Ashby (1970). Both albums introduced a wonderful blend of jazz and funk alongside orchestral arrangements by Richard Evans and soul-inflected songs. The sound of the Japanese koto in the arrangements also stands out as an early fusion experiment. As an African American woman playing a rare instrument in a niche genre though, the musician perhaps never enjoyed the recognition she deserved in her lifetime and her career was cut short in 1986 when she died from cancer aged 53.
Born five years later and also a Detroit, Michigan native, Alice Coltrane had perhaps a different experience. Following the untimely death of her husband in 1967, she recorded a series of landmark spiritual jazz albums for the Impulse! label in the early 1970s which introduced and established her unique free-flowing style improvisations on the classical harp.
Brandee Younger’s interest in the harp was awakened when hearing Alice Coltrane’s “Blue Nile” on a compilation cd. Ever since her professional début in the early 2010s, she has been returning the same musical and spiritual roots by performing and recording both Alice Coltrane’s and Dorothy Ashby’s music which has in turn informed her own compositions.
As well as that, Brandee Younger has been in direct contact with Alice Coltrane’s family and musical lineage early on by collaborating on many occasion with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of John and Alice. The latter invited Brandee Younger to perform at her mother’s memorial service in May 2007 while she was still in her graduate programme at NYU. Her performance “moved me and everyone in attendance from the first glissando” noted Ravi Coltrane in a 2016 interview.
On Soul Awakening, Brandee Younger covers “Blue Nile” again with Antoine Roney on saxophone, and Ravi Coltrane features on two tracks, including the opening number “Soulris” – a spine-tingling moment once the first few notes on the harp and saxophone coalesce.
Brandee Younger’s 2016 release Wax & Wane is named after a piece from The Rubyaiyat of Dorothy Ashby (1970). Across her three LPs released to date, she covers “Games”, “Soul Vibrations” and “Afro-Harping”, all from the latter 1968 eponymous album.
Under the artistic direction of double bass player and long-time collaborator Dezron Douglas, Soul Awakening revisits Marvin Gaye’s “Save the Children” while also distilling both Ashby’s and Coltrane’s legacy into a new sonic architecture and even a free jazz number on the title track.
I thought about it, and I knew that I had to get it out of my system before I did anything else – Brandee Younger on Soul Awakening.
There is no denying that Brandee Younger’s musical output to date has generated a strong sense of anticipation and wonder at what might be coming next. In addition to several collaborations with hip-hop, rap and pop artists over the last ten years, Brandee Younger appeared on the 2018 Sgt. Pepper tribute album A Day In The Life: Impressions of Pepper featuring up and coming jazz artists with her take on “For the benefit of Mr Kite!”
She was also heard on the entire New-York side of drummer Makaya McCraven’s fantastic 2018 Universal Beings project as well as on the latter’s 2020 “We’re New Again”, a reimagining of Gil Scott-Heron’s iconic 2010 “I’m New Here”. On 26 August 2020 last, Brandee Younger announced she was joining the prestigious jazz label Impulse! records. To be continued.