Interview with Charles Overton
- by Maria Fox, March 2017
In October 2016, Charles appeared at the Dutch Harp Festival, on recommendation of the Jazz Harp Foundation, who first heard about his incredible playing through Felice Pomeranz, whom he studied with at Berklee College of Music.
What have you been up to in terms of jazz harp? Any projects you are currently involved in?
I graduated from Berklee this past May and have been freelancing over the last year. I play in a trio (bass, drums, harp). We recorded our first album this past weekend with Peter Barnick on drums and Max Ridley on bass. The album will be out probably May or June – it has standards, one original tune, and just generally songs I love to play.
What music did you play growing up?
I started with Suzuki violin – so learning by ear and also lots of classical music.
By mid/early high school I was listening to a lot of rock and alt – Nirvana, Foo Fighters. In high school I listened to jazz – Dave Brubeck’s Time out, particularly Strange Meadowlark. I liked his approach to piano.
The first jazz harpist I listened to was Park Stickney. Monika Stadler and Lori Andrews were also jazz harpists I got some exposure to, it was listening to them that made me realize that jazz was possible [on the harp].
When did you start playing jazz yourself?
Around the first time of hearing Monika and Park, around 13. At 16/17 I started to take it more seriously and devote the same attention I had given to playing classical music.
And the harp?
I started playing the harp at 9 or 10.
I played violin before that, but didn’t want to practice. My teacher at elementary school was a harp teacher and she suggested I play the harp. Her name was Lynelle Edgier-Kordzaia.
My second teacher was Jeanne Chalifoux, and at Interlochen my teacher was Joan Holland.
Which jazz musicians inspire you most?
Brad Mehldau – I really like his stuff. And pianists - Cory Henry, Bill Evans, Aaron Parks. I really like their concept of harmony and time. Another musician I like is Bill Frisell, a guitarist.
You mentioned graduating from Berklee College of Music recently. Why Berklee?
I first met Felice [Pomeranz, professor of harp] when I was 13 or 14. It was at a Lyon & Healy jazz harp competition and festival (I don’t think they have those anymore). There I learned about Berklee.
Eugene Friesen, cellist, came to Interlochen with the World Strings Orchestra and I got up, played and improvised along with them so this was another Berklee connection. I had thought about conservatoires, but applied to Berklee, I thought ‘why not?’. I could take the classical route or do something new where I could still find a classical teacher, play in orchestras and so on. I had enough experience to know how to seek out opportunities.
Can you tell us a more about Berklee – your classes/curriculum, what you liked about studying there?
There’s no school out there like it – especially as a harpist to get the opportunities and connections. I definitely got what I asked for – an immersive, sink or swim experience. For the first two years I spread myself out pretty thin, taking many of the classes. Then I joined the Global Jazz Institute - with the Global Jazz Institute you basically eat, breath, live and sleep jazz. You get to know lots of people. We had workshops, classes, one-on-ones with great musicians (Joe Lovano, John Patitucci, Terri Lynn Carrington and Danilo Perez to name a few). It was a programme like no other, exploring what the harp can be. Intense and way worth it.
A bit about the music you play - what are your roles as a harpist in a jazz band?
Kinda like a piano, or guitar - versatile and harmonic. Sharing roles with guitar versus a soloistic role like horns.
What do you think about when playing and how do you practise? What does your routine look like?
I practise and think about scale to chord relationships. I do some transcribing – listening to what I like, figuring it out, appling it to the harp. I try to get into a space where rather than practicing some rote, technical exercise I let my ear be a guide, be in the moment. The people I admire most do this, are more ear driven.
If I am learning a tune, I’ll listen to recordings and with the score or chart I’ll follow along. I prefer learning music from an aural perspective, listening, getting the vibe of the tune, and I find it is internalized with enough listens.
If learning a piece, I’ll see what’s difficult and pick it apart little by little. I look for those little weak points, and don’t end up skipping weak points. Start slow, with the time and space needed to work out the piece – this helps playing and overall musicianship.
Anything particular you are working on at the moment in your practicing?
Basic things such as chords and scales. How notes and tensions work with various chords – for example what notes can work with a Cmaj7. I’ll pick a simple progression – I VI II V, or let’s say II V I – and practise crafting a line which targets specific notes. Which is the 3rd of the chord, the 5th, 7th, 9th, 11th. So maybe the 9th of the II chord, the 6th of the V chord and the root of the I chord. This stretches my ears and helps me to hear new ways of constructing lines.
Any advice for beginner jazz harpists?
Listen a lot to things that inspire you. Figure out what you love to listen to and try to work it out by ear.
What are your plans for the next few years?
Taking things step by step - playing a lot with the band. Look out for the album, which should be out in May or June.
Do you have a website - somewhere where we can keep up to date with what you are doing?