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Harp Jazz

From Casper Reardon to Alina Bzhezhinska

by Robin Kidson



Alina Bzhezhinska

Alina Bzhezhinska


It’s strange how some instruments have never taken to jazz – or is it the other way round? Take the harp, for example. I doubt whether even serious jazz fans could name more than one or two jazz harpists: Alice Coltrane, perhaps? Dorothy Ashby? And then the list probably runs out. Not that the list is long in any case; jazz harpists are pretty thin on the ground.

These musings have been prompted by the recent release on the Ubuntu Music label of Inspiration, an album by Alina Casper ReardonBzhezhinska who is one of that rare breed, a harpist who plays jazz. More of Alina Bzhezhinska later. First, though, here’s a brief trot through the even briefer history of the harp in jazz….


The first harpist to have a go at playing jazz is usually reckoned to be Casper Reardon (1907-1941). He was a classically trained musician who became interested in various forms of Afro-American music and worked out ways of using the harp to play jazz. He became known as “The World’s Hottest Harpist”.


Casper Reardon



There is some grainy footage of him playing on an unreleased studio recording from 1937 - even with the scratches, something interesting and original is going on, making one wonder why the harp didn’t become a more prominent instrument in jazz.











In any event, Casper Reardon died young and nobody seemed that much inclined to take up the jazz harp baton – except, that is, for Adele Girard (1913-1993) who played harp with the Joe Marsala Band in the 1930s and 1940s. The band included the likes of Shelly Manne and Buddy Rich, and Girard was prominently featured. She married Joe Marsala in 1937. Here she is playing Harp Boogie with her own trio sometime in the late 1940s:






Despite the efforts of Reardon and Girard, the harp was seen as something of a novelty instrument in jazz. The first jazz harpist to be taken more seriously was Dorothy Ashby (1932-1986) who found ways to play bebop on the instrument. As a black woman, she had her struggles but was determined to make her way and develop a distinctive style. She led her own group which included musicians of the calibre of Roy Haynes and Jimmy Cobb. Ashby continued to develop her playing beyond bebop – and beyond jazz. She played, for example, with Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder. Her 1968 album, Afro-Harping, is one of the definitive statements of the harp in contemporary jazz.



Dorothy Ashby

Dorothy Ashby



Here’s a recording of Dorothy Ashby playing There's A Small Hotel :








Alice Coltrane



And then there’s Alice Coltrane (1937-2007), perhaps the best known jazz harpist of them all. However, she first came to prominence as a pianist, replacing McCoy Tyner in husband John’s group in 1966. After John Coltrane died in 1967, Alice gradually developed a considerable reputation in her own right as a composer and band leader, often using the harp in an original and interesting way. She was drawn increasingly to non-western forms of music – and non-western forms of religion.

Her oeuvre tends to divide critics – the reviewers of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, for example, are decidedly sniffy about her: “Prayerful and intense”, they say, “Alice Coltrane’s records are not for the cynically disposed”. Personally, I’ve always found much in Alice Coltrane to admire – the title track of her 1970 album, Journey in Satchidananda, has long been a favourite.







Here is Alice Coltrane playing solo harp live in concert.






Alina Bzhezhinska Group


Which brings us back to Alina Bzhezhinska whose latest album, Inspiration, is very much a tribute to Alice Coltrane. Originally from Ukraine/Poland but now based in London, Bzhezhinska has developed an international reputation as a harpist both in classical music and jazz settings. She had the idea for Inspiration at the beginning of 2017, saying that this was “the year when the world paid tribute to Alice Coltrane for her amazing contribution to music, celebrating her 80th birthday and paying respect to her memory … Coltrane is a true role model whose art was an example of endless potential and creative possibilities and whose life journey was dedicated to finding the meaning of human existence and universal consciousness”.

She is joined on Inspiration by Tony Kofi, on soprano and tenor saxophone, Larry Bartley on double bass, and Joel Prime on drums. Together, they played a number of gigs in 2017 celebrating what would have been Alice Coltrane’s birthday, including a memorable appearance at the EFG London Jazz Festival with Pharoah Sanders and Denys Baptiste. This was nominated as 'Best Live Experience of the Year' at the 2018 Jazz FM Awards.


Of the 10 tracks on Inspiration, four are Alice Coltrane compositions. Wisdom Eye is a short, wistful piece on which Bzhezhinska plays solo harp, showing off just what the harp can do – and what Bzhezhinska can do with the harp. Blue Nile is a more upbeat track on which Kofi channels his inner John Coltrane on soprano sax.




Here’s a snatch (a “teaser”) of the quartet playing Blue Nile.



Los Caballos has a most infectious riff and is played with both dexterity and humour by all four musicians. Here’s another teaser:




The highlight of the Alice Coltrane pieces, though, is a version of Journey in Satchidananda. This begins with a long but highly effective Larry Bartley bass solo from which the compelling rhythms and themes of the piece gradually emerge. Kofi and Bzhezhinska improvise over the bass and drum riffs, building up quite a head of intense and exciting steam. “Journey in Satchidananda”, says Bzhezhinska, “…is one of the most important pieces on my album. I discovered this music a long time ago and it took me on my own personal journey that I’m still experiencing and would encourage everyone to explore its beauty and depth”.

Bzhezhinska has more than a touch of Alice Coltrane in her playing, which is full of arpeggios (arpeggio, from the Italian arpeggiare, to perform on the harp, from arpa, harp) and glissandi, playing on the strengths of the harp rather than trying to pretend it’s not a harp. However, Bzhezhinska has her own distinctive style which brings the harp right into the heart and spirit of contemporary jazz. Alina Bzhezhinska albumOne compelling feature of that style is the little bombs of discordance which she explodes, sometimes seeming to strike the harp strings.

Bzhezhinska’s originality is shown to greatest effect when playing her own compositions. Spero, for example, is a short but delightful harp/sax duet. Annoying Semitones has a foot tapping latin beat over which Bzhezhinska improvises freely, employing those unsettling bursts of discordance in a most absorbing way. Winter Moods has harp and bass playing a constant riff throughout the piece with drums and harp improvising on top and managing to sound like rain, snow and frosty days all at the same time. Lemky is a piece inspired by the traditional music of the Lemky, a tribe from the Carpathian Mountains. The intriguingly named Following a Lovely Sky Boat is billed as a “free improvisation” and has some beautiful bowed bass from Larry Bartley.

There is one track by John Coltrane on the album – After The Rain. The piece “strikes me by its beauty”, says Bzhezhinska, "and I think it works wonderfully with the sound of the rain and a storm that can be imitated on the harp so naturally”.

Perhaps one reason why the harp has never really established itself as a jazz instrument is that it’s often seen as quite a delicate, almost feminine instrument unsuited to the raucous masculinity of so much (too much?) jazz. Many of the top classical harp players are women, and it’s significant that most of the main jazz harp players have also been women. Alina Bzhezhinska is coming into her own at a time when old prejudices are being constantly challenged – even in jazz which, despite its rebel image, has its socially conservative features. Perhaps the harp will also come to be increasingly accepted in jazz. If so, Alina Bzhezhinska, with her robust technique and emphasis on the harp’s special sound qualities, will come to be seen as a key figure. One can’t help feeling that we are going to hear a lot more about Alina Bzhezhinska.  


Here is Alina playing Wisdom's Eye live in concert:




You can buy Inspiration on Amazon here, and there is more information about Alina Bzhezhinska on her website (click here).

Alice is playing a number of dates with her quartet this autumn including:

27th September: Elgar Room, Royal Albert Hall, London
30th September: Hastings Jazz Festival
6th October: Ronnie Scott’s, London, opening for “Late Trane”
19th October: The Vortex, London
23rd October: Annie’s Jazz, Southend-on Sea
17th November: Bear Jazz Club, Luton
22nd November: Spice of Life, London Jazz Festival
30th November: Wakefield Jazz
13th December: The Old Town Hall, Hemel Hempstead



Doug Potter writes : 'I remember a guy called David Snell who could really swing the harp, not heard of him for a long time though'. There is an interview with David Snell on YouTube, but click here to listen to him playing My Favourite Things.



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Other pages you might find of interest :

Snowpoet: Poetry And Jazz
Keith Jarrett: After The Fall
Video Juke Box
Jazz As Art

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