When I was fourteen my friends and I had the habit to go to the local record store and check if we found anything exciting. It was far from every time any of us could buy anything, but the staff of the store was cool and they were all into jazz, so the jazz selection was really good. Sometimes we had the courage to ask for a sample listening, but most of the time we just looked at the record sleeves, checked out who played with who and made plans for which records we would buy as soon as we got money.
One day, there was a record with a sleeve that caught my eye. It was a picture of a beautiful lady playing on a Lyon & Healy Style 11. It was called “A Monastic Trio”, and the moment I saw it, I started to worry that it would be sold before I had the money to buy it. But I got the record (I guess there were no other aspiring jazz harpists in town!) and I was so proud that finally, I had bought a record with jazz harp. Jazz harp existed. And my friends knew now, because they had seen the record.
It might sound like this was a million years ago, but I grew up when there still was record stores with a variety of records, and, sad to say, I was probably one of those who killed the record stores. Because, four years later, I figured out how to buy records online. And one of the first ones I bought was “Afro Harping” by Dorothy Ashby. It completely blew my mind.
I intentionally didn’t write about my reaction on “A Monastic Trio”, when I finally got home and listened to it. Because I was a little disappointed, it wasn’t what I expected. Alice Coltrane didn’t play the harp the way I was taught, and playing glissandi did seem to me (with my teenage pride) a little simple. So when I heard “Afro Harping”, this was truly the record I had been looking for. Dorothy Ashby played the harp with “proper” harp technique, with good time, jazz articulation and her jazz solos were awesome.
My conception of Alice Coltrane’s work with the harp has changed completely since my teenage years, I am glad to say. To make music is so much more than mastering the technique of the instrument and Alice Coltrane’s music came straight out of her soul. So that is why I mention both these records, I think they are absolutely amazing and truly masterpieces in the legacy of jazz harp.
That’s no news for jazz harpists, and jazz musicians are always in the hunt for inspiring music, so here are a few of my favorites:
Iro Haarla has made some marvelous records where she, just like Alice Coltrane, both plays the piano and the harp. One of my favorites is “Northbound”. She, as well as many other of the greatest Scandinavian improvising musicians, works with the German record label ECM (European Contemporary Music, one of my favorite labels. And a teacher at Berklee called it European Crap Music… how dared he!). This label is well worth checking out if you are on search for improvised harp. Another example is harpist Helen Davies, often playing with Palle Mikkelborg.
Zeena Parkins just released a new record: “Three Harps, Tuning Forks and Electronics”. It is amazingly creative. She has such a refreshing approach to the harp, composing and producing, all which I think should be included in our trade. I want to hear more like this. I think we all should go out and improvise like Zeena Parkins so we get more amazing harp records to enjoy.
You know when you are late for a party, and when you show up, it is about to finish? That’s how I feel about the French band Orioxy. Amazing improvised music with flavor of traditional music from all over the world. Soon after I found out about this band, they split up. How sad! But I will keep an eye on what harpist Julie Campiche will be up to now.
I am always in search for new inspiring harp music, if you have suggestions that I should check out and maybe write about, please send an email to email@example.com.
Fun fact, is that one guy that worked in the record store, was Simon Svärd, now guitarist in my band Trilobit. Full circles 😀