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Jazz

Harpist Brandee Younger Moves Between Worlds Of Jazz, Hip-Hop, Classical

By MICHAEL HAMAD, mhamad@ctnow.com

CTNow

2:09 PM EDT, April 30, 2014

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When she decided to forgo the usual classical-music path, harpist Brandee Younger faced a tough road: what space was out there for the harp in the jazz world, let alone hip-hop and popular music?

Luckily, Younger, a Brooklyn-based musician, had a few role models. Before her death in 1986, Dorothy Ashby recorded nearly a dozen harp-centered recordings and worked on records by Stevie Wonder, Freddie Hubbard and Bobby Womack; in later years, her sound became a go-to noise for hip-hop producers. And pianist/composer Alice Coltrane — Younger's hero — played the harp on Impulse! recordings like "Journey in Satchidananda," "Universal Consciousness," "World Galaxy" and many others. More recently, Carol Robbins, a former student of Ashby's, has led her own groups on a handful of her own recordings and guested on others. There's some history there.

"I guess if you play the saxophone, you've got a bunch of different influences," Younger told CTNow. "But naturally, when people see the harp, it's Dorothy or Alice." On hip-hop sessions, Younger said, producers are heavily into Ashby: "They all say, 'Give me that Ashby vibe.'"

Younger arrived at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford in 2001 to study both harp performance and the music business. Her mind was always open to the idea of playing jazz, she said, "but I had to study classical music, just to become proficient on the instrument."

Her Alice Coltrane obsession, however, was already fully formed. "I would walk around with my Discman playing Alice Coltrane records," she said. Younger quickly gravitated toward the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz and African American Studies at Hartt and found like-minded players in bassist Dezron Douglas and saxophonist Lummie Spann. "Those guys were around," she said. "I started asking: 'Can I play this on the harp?'"

The orchestral world, Younger said, made her feel awkward. "I didn't come from that background," she said. "It was a big cultural shock." She instantly connected to the jazz department on a social level, especially after meeting bassist and professor Nat Reeves. "I dubbed him my heart-father," Younger said. "He introduced me to a lot of people. It was more of a family vibe that I got from the jazz department."

Around 2006, through Reeves, Younger met saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who got her thinking more about improvisation. When Alice Coltrane passed away at the beginning of 2007, her son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, called on Younger to perform at his mother's funeral. "I didn't know what it was going to entail," Younger said. "He was coping with the loss of his mother and trying to put together this big concert, which was basically a musical memorial" incorporating members of both Alice's band and surviving members who'd played with John Coltrane, Alice's late husband. "That was the turning point, the Oprah 'Aha' moment," Younger said. "I realized that this is what I was supposed to be doing."

From there, Younger worked with as many bandleaders as possible, developing her sound while testing the waters for her own original compositions. Producer Ryan Leslie soon hired Younger to perform on R&B/pop recording artist Cassie Ventura's self-titled debut album, and that led to working for bassist Derek Hodge, who was producing rapper Common at the time.

Producers, Younger said, are the ones in the pop music world who are most aware of the sonic potential of the harp. "They're the ones that make the beats for the artists, and each one works in a different way," Younger said. "Some take your pieces and cut you up and loop you," while others want her to play straight through. Either way, Younger mostly improvises her parts. "That was tough coming from the classical world, where they just say 'Play your part.' Now I have a proper set-up at home, and I can beg them to send me the recordings so that I can figure out my parts at home."

Within the jazz world, Younger, who is still in her twenties, has worked with some of the greats: drummers Jack DeJohnette and Rashied Ali, bassists Charlie Haden and Reggie Workman and many others. Her first EP, "Prelude," with Douglas on bass, drummer E.J. Strickland and vocalist Niia, came out in 2011 and gained some traction. Her proudest original composition is a one-off recording called "He Has A Name (Awareness, for Trayvon)," titled for and dedicated to Trayvon Martin. It's a lilting, minor-key ballad in triple-meter with a folk-like melody and chord structure, on which Younger's harp provides the perfect bed of sound for improvisations by tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard and alto flute player Nicole Camacho. She'll bring a trio — bassist and Waterbury native Jonathan Michel and drummer Curtis Torian — to the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury on Thursday, May 1 at 6 p.m. (In between gigs and session work, she's also planning to release two separate albums, one with her own quartet and "a lot of special guests" and another that's a tribute to Ashby; visit her website, brandeeyounger.com, to find out everything she's up to.)

"I never really considered myself a composer," Younger said. "I went to school to play music that was notated, but when I started to lead my own bands, I had to start to write music, just as a form of expression." The piece for Martin, she said, "just came to me organically… I didn't sit down and try to write. It literally just came to me… This was the first time that my band played a piece of music and I felt like it was special… They didn't know who it was for, but they played the heck out of it."

Music writer Mike Hamad writes about seven contemporary harpists you should know about here.