I started taking part in harp at 11 and the standard path to observe with the instrument was the classical music one, the place all of the gamers I noticed or studied had been white. I discovered it fairly an isolating, lonely life being the one Black particular person at each harp occasion or recital I went to. On the identical time, rising up in New York, I used to be surrounded by hip-hop. In the future I heard an incredible harp pattern on a Pete Rock observe and realised I might improvise and incorporate these different sorts of music on the instrument too. However I had no concept who was taking part in on that pattern – till a couple of years later I came across an image of Dorothy Ashby.
Right here was a Black girl photographed taking part in my instrument: I had a right away want to dig deeper into her life. I went on a rampage of discovery and came upon she had accomplished precisely what I wished to with the harp. She improvised and performed jazz on her personal information however she additionally performed standard covers, soundtrack music, and appeared on periods with everybody from Stevie Marvel to Invoice Withers and Minnie Ripperton. Hers was the harp I heard on that Pete Rock observe.
I realised that I wasn’t alone in what I wished to do with the instrument and I used to be shocked that extra folks didn’t learn about her work. Being a lady in jazz within the 50s and 60s, when she was taking part in, was no simple feat, by no means thoughts taking part in an obscure instrument just like the harp. She wasn’t taking part in conventional repertoire and he or she was Black: she had each issue working in opposition to her. But she nonetheless produced 11 great albums and I made a decision that at every live performance I gave, I’d cowl a observe of hers, in addition to the work of her up to date, Alice Coltrane, to maintain the curiosity of their pioneering music alive.
What makes Dorothy’s music particular is that she was at all times pushing forwards. She would maximise the sound of the harp in several kinds of music from funk to soul and jazz, giving it chord voicings like a piano or guitar whereas protecting its essence alive. She might play nearly something on the instrument and make it sound good.
I’ve coated a number of of her tracks on document over time, from Wax and Wane to Soul Vibrations and Afro-Harping, however I knew that for my newest album, Model New Life, I wished to go deeper into her work. I had discovered numerous her written compositions for theatre items, and unrealised initiatives that had by no means been recorded, and I made a decision to deliver them to an viewers for the primary time.
Since Dorothy had such an expansive thoughts and was at all times inquisitive about what was taking place in music on the time that she was writing, I didn’t wish to simply recreate her tunes like covers. As a substitute I bought Makaya McCraven concerned to provide the document and add his personal model of looping and sampling to replace these tracks for 2023. We recorded a number of of Dorothy’s present compositions, resembling Mud and Come Reside With Me, in addition to including originals of my very own, created in her spirit.
Each addition to Dorothy’s compositions was intentional. The vibraphone on the by no means earlier than heard You’re a Woman for One Man Solely is a nod to the work that she did with Terry Pollard on her albums Delicate Winds and The Swinging Harp, whereas using strings on a number of of the opposite tracks was in homage to the way in which she employed them as a stunning background texture on her observe Video games. We even managed to get Pete Rock featured on one other unreleased composition, Livin’ and Lovin’ in My Personal Method, which introduced issues full circle again to how I first heard Dorothy’s work.
Dorothy died in 1986 and was by no means appreciated in the way in which she ought to have been when she was alive. She was nearly silenced by her circumstances. The harp could not dominate the stage like singers or different instrumentalists can however the way in which she was taking part in it and composing for it in so many various settings deserved extra consideration. Had she lived just some years longer, she would have been in a position to hear how her work meshed so effectively with hip-hop. She would have loved the fruits of her labour.
I need folks to listen to this album and uncover her catalogue. There nonetheless exists a false impression that the harp solely belongs in an orchestra, however the likes of Dorothy and Alice Coltrane confirmed us many years in the past that it could actually go to so many different locations. In Dorothy’s work there’s something for everybody and I’ll preserve honouring her legacy so long as I’m taking part in. It’s a lifelong undertaking.
Brandee Youthful is a harpist from New York. Her new album, Model New Life, is out now on Impulse! Data.