by Giovanni Russonello
The jazz harpist Brandee Younger knows the strengths of her instrument: its trembling, watery consistency, the way it easily fills vast harmonic space. And she knows the limits – namely the way that its pedal system can keep things frustratingly diatonic, and make jazz harmonies tough. Oh, and good luck lugging a harp to a jam session. (Younger’s done it — not a pleasant trip.)
But Younger, who started out taking classical lessons as a child but almost immediately started transposing R Kelly songs onto the harp, has a way of making things work. In the past few years, she’s moved a few steps further: Modern jazz picks up a lot from welding outside musics with its own history — particularly a sensitivity to tonal range, and ideas about how polyrhythms can team up with textures to make a rugged thatch. Younger embodies all that, and puts the harp right up there as an addition to the palette of freeform, hip-hop-infused modern jazz.
She’ll appear with an expert band this weekend at her Bohemian Caverns debut, performing Friday and Saturday nights. We caught up this week to discuss how she made the transition to jazz on an uncommon instrument, the legacy of figures like Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, and the way that bucking expectations has helped her find her voice.
CapitalBop: Did you always start out wanting to do jazz? What was the path you took to the music?
Brandee Younger: There was a woman who worked with my parents, who played harp…. They would bring me over to her house. I played flute so we played some duets. The interest was there…. I was about 12 years old… They were thinking ahead to what I could do to get a scholarship to [college]…. Continue reading