Brandee Younger Profiled in the New York Times!
Brandee Younger was a teenager — an aspiring classical harpist, growing up on Long Island — when she came across an eye-opening issue of Harp Column magazine. A trade bimonthly with a loyal constituency (motto: “practical news, for practical harpists”) had published a readers poll celebrating the instrument’s most influential figures of the 20th century.
“There were all these teeny squares,” Ms. Younger said recently, recalling the cover illustration, a yearbook-style photo mosaic. “I saw one dark square. So I flipped through the pages to see who it was, and it was Dorothy Ashby.”
This was a fateful discovery for Ms. Younger, 32, who has become a harpist of rare prominence in jazz, building on an African-American legacy largely defined by Ms. Ashby and Alice Coltrane. “Wax & Wane,” Ms. Younger’s sleek, assured new album, luxuriates in groove: It’s the latest statement from a jazz generation weaned on hip-hop producers like J Dilla. But the album is also a genuflection, featuring three songs associated with Ms. Ashby, including the title track.
The harp is an instrument whose roots stretch to antiquity, with variations across continents and cultures; one of Ms. Younger’s notable peers, Edmar Castañeda, plays a Colombian harp in a drivingly percussive style. Yet the concert harp is a European classical instrument, and its presence in jazz was marginal — a matter of gossamer drapery — before Ms. Ashby, whose 1957 debut album, “The Jazz Harpist,” established her fluency as an improviser.
Ms. Younger came to jazz more circuitously. She latched onto Ms. Coltrane’s music, with its meditative and astral dimensions, while in high school, around the time she learned of Ms. Ashby. Both figures were prized by the crate-digging hip-hop crowd: Ms. Younger recognized one Ashby tune as the main sample in a track by the producer and rapper Pete Rock.
At the Hartt School, the conservatory at the University of Hartford, Ms. Younger became a scholarship student in the classical department. “It was a real culture shock,” she said. “I didn’t fit in socially.” She hadn’t attended a performing arts high school, which was one difference. Another was more glaring: “Black girl, plus harp,” she said wryly. “I stuck out like a sore thumb.”
Ms. Younger quickly found a kinship with Hartt’s jazz program, run at the time by the august alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. He told her to drop by whenever she wanted. “So I did,” she said. “Even though I was studying classical music, I would show up to the master classes, the ensemble classes. I would never bring my instrument; I would just sit there. Four years of that.”
Though intimidated by the prospect of improvising, she gradually began to branch out, with encouragement. She was in the graduate program at New York University in 2007 when the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane asked her to play at a memorial service for his mother. Her performance “moved me and everyone in attendance from the first glissando,” Mr. Coltrane recalled. “No harpist thus far has been more capable of combining all of the modern harp traditions — from Salzedo, through Dorothy Ashby, through Alice Coltrane — with such strength, grace and commitment.” This was effectively Ms. Younger’s public debut, and it set the terms for a spiritual succession.
On Saturday, she played an Alice Coltrane tribute as part of the PDX Jazz Festival, in Portland, Ore., with an all-star group that included Mr. Coltrane and the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. And when she appeared with her band earlier this month at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the set had a segue from “Rama Rama,” one of Ms. Coltrane’s devotional songs, to “Blue Nile,” one of her cascading modal jazz compositions.
But the band — with Anne Drummond on flute, Chelsea Baratz on tenor saxophone, Dezron Douglas on bass and Dana Hawkins on drums — mainly drew from “Wax & Wane,” which Ms. Younger has released on her own. Among the highlights were a pair of original tunes: “Essence of Ruby,” a rubbery funk fantasia, and “Black Gold,” a dreamy, cinematic reflection.
The new album came about after Ms. Younger performed a tribute to Ms. Ashby commissioned by the Revive Music Group. She connected with Casey Benjamin of the Robert Glasper Experiment, who produced “Wax & Wane” with a contemporary flair. “Afro-Harping,” which in Ms. Ashby’s original 1968 version feels dialed in to hippie frequencies, sounds on the new album like a post-Dilla instrumental, a remix in real time.
Despite her singularity as an artist, Ms. Younger is still part of the Harp Column crowd. She’s vice president of two New York chapters of the American Harp Society, and teaches students with a range of interests. In December, when she went to the Apollo Theater to see the singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom — another harpist transcending conventions — she spent a few minutes chatting with their mutual harp technician, Liza Jensen, before the show.
“There’s a stigma out there that you’re not a serious player unless you’re performing classical music,” Ms. Younger wrote later in an email, praising Ms. Newsom for expanding the frame. A similar idea underpins Harp on Park, a lunchtime concert series that Ms. Younger has programmed for Arts Brookfield, beginning in April.
The final concert, on May 12, will feature Ms. Younger and Mr. Douglas in a harp-and-bass duo. “Just about all the harpists on the series,” she said with some satisfaction, “come from classical backgrounds and have branched out to lead successful careers moving outside of the box.”