The harp may be one of the most obscure instruments in jazz, but as proven in the later part of the 60s, the harp can lead a band in style, just as well as any horn or common rhythm section instrument.
The whimsical grace of jazz harp has mostly been associated with the spiritually-oriented subgenre of jazz, pioneered by women like Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane who turned their harps into lead instruments. The more delicate sounds of soul-jazz complimented the sizzling organ trios that were playing right along side them at the time.
There weren’t many jazz harpists in the past, nor are there many in the present, but with Brandee Younger emerging on the jazz scene under a decade ago, she is keeping the tradition alive. On her newest album, Prelude, Younger is joined by another woman, simply called Niia, whose whimsical voice seems born to glide alongside the soft melodies.
The record opens with “So Alive,” showcasing the harp, not as a soul-jazz instrument, but as a 21st century modern jazz centerpiece. Younger also effortlessly performs hip hop harp and is a grand classical harpist. She is vice president of the Long Island Chapter of the American Harp Society.
Niia’s voice is hip, probably equally inspired by earlier jazz divas as much as indie/folk rock singers like the Joanna Newsome and bands like Cocorosie. Although her voice is beautiful and there is an undeniable power behind it, she has a slight case of the grown-woman-trying-to-sound-like-a little-girl blues. It’s interesting enough, but its time to leave that sound back in 2005.
Niaa returns once more on the album for “Oriental Folk Song” a more spiritually-driven work suggesting a return to the roots of modern jazz harp. Her voice, with no actual lyrics and in a similar vein to scat singing, successfully acts as another instrument in the band creating a savory melody surrounding the rest of the rhythm section.
Prelude is graceful and Younger’s harp is mesmerizing on all of the short record’s five tracks. While keeping the harp alive as a jazz instrument, her forward-thinking approach and versatility in other musical genres is a welcomed sound on the jazz continuum.
Brandee Younger, “Prelude,” Independent