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Interview with Carol Robbins 

the iJHF interviewed Carol Robbins, who will be on the faculty of the 2nd Jazz Harp Academy at Louisiana State University in September 2011, by email. 

- August 2011 


What are your current activities as a jazz harpist? 

I’ve been a member of the Billy Childs Jazz Chamber Ensemble since 1999. We have performed in The United States extensively and we will tour Europe in November. We have recorded two CDs and have received Grammy nominations for both of them.I also perform with my own group in Los Angeles and other cities in the United States. I have three CDs and we are in the process of mixing my fourth. 


Carol at the Grammy's with Billy Childs 


When did you start playing the harp, and do you remember why? 

My parents took our family on a long road trip when I was 8 years old. I saw a woman playing the harp in Canada and I begged my parents for a year to get one for me. I loved the harp immediately and it eventually replaced the piano as my primary instrument. 


Who was your teacher / were your teachers? 

I studied classical harp with several teachers but I always gravitated toward jazz improvisation. I was already quite advanced when Dorothy Ashby moved to Los Angeles. I called her cold and asked if she would be willing to coach me. She agreed after our first meeting. Dorothy mentored me and we remained close friends until her passing. I consider her my most important teacher. 


Which music did you grow up with? 

My parents were both musical. My mother has a degree in music education and she loves classical music. My father was a surgeon and he worked his way through medical school leading a jazz group. His instruments were sax, clarinet and piano. My older sister had fabulous taste in music and she brought home all the best jazz records. I also went through an extensive period of playing, singing and listening to rock. 


When did you start to include jazz influences in harp your playing and why? 

I played jazz on piano first. On harp, after becoming proficient playing classical music, I started accompanying myself singing mostly rock and some standards. Eventually, with much practice and experimentation, I became able to transfer much of the jazz I played on piano to the harp. The reason for the switch to harp for me is sound. I found that voicings I would play on piano sounded so much more rich and beautiful on harp. The overtones moved me very much. 


Did you have trouble to find your place in a jazz band with the harp? 

It is an ever-evolving process. As I grow musically, I redefine my role and push through barriers when I play with a group. It gets easier and it keeps changing as I perform and record with great musicians. 


Which (jazz) musicians inspire you most? 

There are so many! Historically I have to cite Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker. As for contemporaries: Billy Childs, Brian Blade, Brad Mehldau, Bob Sheppard, Larry Koonse. I named many people with whom I currently play. The reason for this is that nothing can be more inspiring than being on stage with great musicians and experiencing the incredible things they play. We react and communicate with our colleagues on the spot and to me this is the definition of inspiration. 


What do you think about when you improvise? Do you think about harmonies and form while playing, or do you rely on only ears & flow? 

I rely on everything! I would love to just play using my ears and flow and that is often easy. However, when given a complex set of changes written by someone other than myself, I must use my knowledge of harmony along with every other tool I possess to give a good improvised performance. 


How do you practice? 

I warm up with exercises. I often play some classical before I start to practice something I need to prepare. 


What are you trying to improve these days? 

I would say linear improvisation. I also try to keep improving my writing skills. 


Are you working on a new CD?  

Yes, as I mentioned earlier, we are mixing my fourth CD for which I’ve written five pieces. I’m excited to have both Billy Childs and Larry Koonse as well as a fabulous rhythm section and sax. Incorporating two additional chordal instruments (piano and guitar) presented both joys and challenges. I hope you will like the result! 


What are your plans for the years to come?  

I love traveling so very much. I hope to perform with great groups of musicians and I hope to do this here and abroad for many years. I love the harp and I constantly strive to improve my ability to play this gorgeous but difficult instrument. 


Do you have any advice for beginning jazz harpists? 

My advice is to reject fear of making mistakes and just go for it. Play as much as possible with other musicians. Play with favorite records or even the radio. Use your ears to figure out what great musicians are doing. Explore the wealth of teaching literature out there for jazz piano. It can be easily adapted to harp. Take lessons from the best jazz coaches in your area (harp or piano) and get out as much as possible to hear live jazz. 


Thank you, Carol! 


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