Within the jazz idiom, there are only a few harpists that have caught my attention — two of them are incredible Black women. Alice Coltrane, the wife to the iconic John Coltrane, is probably the instrument’s best known acolyte. Detroit born harpist Dorothy Ashby is the another.
Ashby, a playwright and public-school educator, was a pioneering harpist, and wrote many of the scores for her and her husband’s Detroit-based theatre company, all while remaining an in-demand side player in Detroit and Los Angeles. She is most known for her work on the famous Stevie Wonder album, Songs in the Key of Life, specifically on the track “If It’s Magic,” a duet with Wonder. As an artist, Ashby inspired generations of harp players. Carol Robbins, one of Ashby’s friends and mentees once told me that Ashby was insistent in urging younger harpists to find their own voice, and avoid copying her or others — she advised them to look within, instead.
On Brand New Life, 39-year old Grammy-nominated harpist Brandee Younger explores Ashby’s catalog, excavating her own unique voice and charting her own path as she traces Ashby’s influence across genres.
I’ve known Younger for years. She’s a fixture of the New York jazz scene who has always marched to her own beat, bringing her to the attention of a vast array of artists. Over the years she’s collaborated with Beyoncé, Common, Drake, Lauryn Hill and John Legend, among others. Released on legendary jazz imprint, Impulse!, Brand New Life — which features Rashaan Carter on bass, Makaya McCraven on drums, Joel Ross on vibraphone and De’Sean Jones on tenor saxophone — is quite insatiable. More so, the record showcases Younger’s desire, and capability, to take the harp to new heights.
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“I want people to know that the harp doesn’t have limits — that it can fit in diverse genres,” Younger told me. “And regardless of genre, it’s just important to make what you do, what you play, unique to you. I kept it really real with this record and didn’t think about what other people would think.”
In an interview on “Good Morning America,” Younger said, “Bringing new life to some of [Ashby’s] music that hasn’t been recorded, has been recorded, and new work in general,” was an overarching goal for the recording.
Though she’s not yet 40-years old, Younger has proven herself an exciting artist, willing and intent on reinvention, both of her own work and, as is clear on Brand New Life, the work of those who came before her.