Interview with Brandee Younger
At the time of her Dorothee Ashby tribute project 'Afro Harping', the iJHF interviews New York City harpist Brandee Younger.
What are your current activities as a jazz harpist?
I consider myself a "Harpist" -- I avoid the label whenever possible because I'm constantly blurring the lines between genres. At this current time, my focus is on my quartet: The Brandee Younger Quartet and a tribute to the great Dorothy Ashby; Afro Harping: A Tribute to Dorothy Ashby with Brandee Younger.
For the quartet (sometimes a quintet), a part of all the gigs are always tributes in a sense. I've made it a point to include at least one Alice Coltrane and one Dorothy Ashby tune each night. As well, much of my original music has elements of traditional harp repertoire in it. I've probably taken the most ideas from Marcel Grandjany's compositions, when writing my own music. I always try to keep one foot planted, while moving the other ahead.
The Afro Harping project came about when approached by a promoter to do a tribute to Dorothy Ashby. We weren't sure of the best way to premiere it, as she has so many recordings, it was hard to narrow it down. I chose to focus on Afro Harping since that is probably her most known recording. The promoter mostly works on shows that combine hip hop and jazz, so it was just a perfect fit. Afro Harping is the album that so many producers sampled to make some incredible hip hop beats that were hits! The album was so far ahead of its time.
So for this tribute, we didn't keep the original instrumentation. Instead, we used harp (with effects), bass, drums, sax, flute and DJ. With the DJ, we could incorporate some hip hop samples into set, so it turned out to be a perfect match!
When did you start playing the harp, and do you remember why?
Around the age of 13. My parents learned that a co-worker played harp (an adult beginner) and began to bring me to her house…sort of as a free extracurricular activity. At the time I played flute, so we played some simple fl & harp duets. That was my introduction to the instrument.
Who was your teacher / were your teachers?
My teachers included Karen Strauss, Susan Jolles, Rebecca Flannery & Emily Mitchell. I take lessons here and there with different harpists here in NY.
Which music did you grow up with?
I grew up mainly with hip hop, classic r&b and jazz. One of the most wonderful things about my first teacher Karen Strauss, was that she helped me to learn more than what was in my method books. She would willingly transcribe popular music for me that I liked from the radio. I'm sure this helped me to do what I do today, and to keep up with playing, during difficult times.
When did you start to include jazz influences in harp your playing and why?
High school was my 1st attempt. Since I played other instruments, and played what I wanted on them, I just wanted to do the same on harp.
Did you have trouble to find your place and function in a jazz band with the harp?
Initially, yes. At it was not knowing what to play when, at times it was trying to not interfere with the piano and other times it was simply trying to be heard over loud drums & horn players!
Which (jazz) musicians inspire you most?
Tough question, but musically…I'd say Ahmad Jamal, Dorothy Ashby, Alice Coltrane, Cyrus Chestnut.
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?
Always, I rely on ears and flow. I'm working on developing my ear more. It's so easy to be married to the page!
How do you practice?
I practice tunes & standard rep. With tunes, I work around the changes with different concepts. I sound really awful when I practice. And I work on standard rep to help keep me sharp.
What are you trying to improve these days?
My ear, my sense of harmony.
Are you working on a new CD? And how about your last one?
Oh yes I am and I am excited about it! Sort of stuck in that place where I'm deciding between self releasing or releasing on a label. If I decide to self release, you'll see it by late spring! In the meantime, I have an EP entitled "prelude" that was just a demo…but someone liked it :)
What are your plans for the years to come?
My plans for the years to come are to record a few more albums, tour and teach. Those are my goals and although I'm doing it, I want to do it on a much higher level.
Do you have any advice for beginning jazz harpists?
Listen to as much music as you can! All different kinds of music. Learn it, but create your own thing! Your own sound.