Once in a while someone comes along and reminds us of overlooked individuals in the jazz world. Not only has Alina Bzhezhinska done this with regard to Alice Coltrane over the past year, with her justifiably lauded quartet, but also in her group, HipHarp Collective, that focuses on the work of the lesser known harpist Dorothy Ashby.
An interesting figure in the history of the music, Detroit-born Ashby, like Coltrane, began as a pianist before settling on the harp in the early 50s. She succeeded in taking it away from the traditional notion of it being largely a background, orchestral instrument. Ashby is on record as recognising the obstacles and disadvantages in her career – being a black woman musician in a male-dominated industry as well as the difficulties making a connection with audiences who were not interested in the harp, classical or otherwise. She overcame much of this, becoming a respected figure in Detroit, not least for her involvement in contemporary African-American issues and working with her husband in community theatre.
One of the admirable aspects of Alina Bzhezhinska’s performances is that she engages the audience and gives then a potted history of the background to the material she uses; in this case, someone who she has seen as an important role model and an influence on her own work.
Some of us recall Hip Harp that Ashby made with Frank Wess for Prestige in 1958, but the inspiration for the session at Tin Music & Arts on 28 February was Ashby’s 1968 album, Afro-Harping.
Starting with “Soul Vibrations”, the band immediately set the tone for the evening, a 60s-style groove, with Christian Vaughan putting down a solid organ sound on his Yamaha. “Action Line”, also from that album, showed Alina’s broad command of the harp, this time using it more like a guitar, with fewer sweeps and glissandi. At other times she adopted a more pianistic and sometimes percussive approach, as on Luiz Bonfa’s “Black Orpheus”, which also featured the rich tones of Gareth Lockrane’s bass flute.
Drummer Joel Prime produced some tight snare on “Life Has Its Trials”, before the Wood/Mellin standard “My One and Only Love” had moments of real beauty from Alina, tugging at the heartstrings. It’s a ballad covered by many, including McCoy Tyner, whose playing was brought to mind on “Gospel Train”, an Alice Coltrane number, by Vaughan’s highly rhythmic and assertive piano.
The second half had more from Afro-Harping, including the title track, with Lockrane on piccolo and flutes, the sound increased in resonance by simultaneous voicing, and Alina widening the intensity with dramatic sweeps. The 60s feel again arose as Andre Previn’s “Valley of the Dolls” theme and Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” were covered, Prime’s drumming and experienced bassist Julie Walkington expertly underpinning throughout. A brief interlude from the famous Second Movement of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” followed, harp effectively taking the introductory guitar part and flutes playing the melody, before “Comin’ Home Baby” had us once more thinking of Herbie Mann at the Village Gate, Mod suits and Hush Puppies.
Well, some us.