Dckne - 70s Jazz Harp Mix

(60s & 70s Soul-Jazz, Jazz Funk..)
Mix by Dckne

Jazz Harp: Making Room for the Stringed Behemoth

by Aubrea Bailis

Rarely encountered and often dismissed as ‘niche,’ the jazz harp has become something of an exotic creature. Much more readily associated with the classical genre, the harp may at first blush seem like a strange addition to a jazz arrangement. It goes without saying that the harp is physically imposing; large and unwieldy, it can be difficult and expensive to transport, thus posing a challenge for touring jazz groups. But beyond the logistical difficulties presented by this stringed behemoth, the presence of the harp in jazz provokes many not readily answerable questions about the genre itself. Namely: to what extent can jazz complicate itself while still remaining ‘Jazz’? 

When integrating the harp, a composer must grapple with the ambiguity of the harp’s role in a jazz ensemble. According to accomplished composer and harpist Deborah Henson-Conant, it is the harp’s unique versatility that often makes it difficult to work with. Adding more than mere coloristic accents, a harp can play melody, comp, or bass, depending on what portion of the instrument is being used at a given moment. For this reason, it takes an experienced musician who is highly attuned to and respectful of the improvisational dynamics of jazz collaboration, as well as a knowledgeable composer who can assure that each player has their role and can maneuver within it, to pull off a jazz piece that takes full advantage of the harp’s considerable potential. Because it can do so much, and because the presence of a harpist is unconventional and therefore not clearly defined, an acute mind and a humble ear are required to find this instrument’s sweet spot. 


Since it is so powerfully identified with classical music, to include harp is to shift the jazz idiom to some degree to complicate the assumed category of ‘jazz’ by incorporating an unlikely voice. And what a voice it is! Just listen to those tunes by Dorothy Ashby, and pay particular attention to the interaction between the bass and the harp. Here, Ashby illuminates connections and intimacies that could not otherwise be appreciated, and would be doomed to remain unexplored. This is what it sounds like when an artist embraces the complexities of adaptation, and is willing to push the boundaries of an art form that has always been skeptical of the limitations of category. The work of the artists in this mix demonstrates how integrating the harp poses a productive challenge to the ever-evolving category of ‘jazz.’ 

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