Grammy-nominated harpist and composer Brandee Younger is one of the leading voices of contemporary jazz that moves between Western classical music, soul, funk, hip-hop and bop. Collaborating with artists such as Beyonce, John Legend, Lauryn Hill, and more, she demonstrates her ability to seamlessly inject the harp into arrangements and venues where it has historically been overlooked.
After 10 amazing music-filled days, Stockholm Jazz Festival closed the Fasching stage with a contemporary harp spa retreat by Brandee Younger Trio. Listening to jazz in all its shapes and sizes, it might be challenging to finish with style and still impress the listeners, but the band lives up to expectations and provides a Sunday kind of relaxation.
I love it when, instead of a verbal introduction, the artists announce themselves by playing first. They sort of give their business card to the audience. Instead of “this is my full name, this is my phone and address” it reads as “this is what jazz is about for me, this is what I breathe in and dream about”. The first impression turns out to be a synchronised and measured cooperation between the harp, bass and drums which takes a spin on the balance between the instruments of the jazz band.
Brandee Younger deliberately keeps the harp low-key and brings in a what’s-considered-to-be-by-some instrument of the past into the present. She makes the harp sound modern and light, which creates a feathery floating atmosphere on stage and in the audience. The harp has this beautiful quality of putting small but meaningful accents without disrupting the general flow which Younger brilliantly highlights. The string instruments neatly cooperate while the bass played by Rashaan Carter is defined and confidently loud. It stays strong, not sinking in the variety of a jazz kingdom.
The drums bring some order into the mesmerising game of string instruments. A clear example of this orderly mess is Allan Mednard‘s drum solo in Unrest. Impressively done, singular brush strokes put into a unified composition transform the ballad into a jam on the jazz toast. The solo steadily builds up the tension but there are no sparks at the end. Instead of reaching the culmination, it abruptly ends and sinks in applause. For me, this finale made a lot of sense because, as the song’s name suggests, it results in an unrested person’s monologue that does not find a way forward. The built-up intensity reflects the feelings of an unsettled person with internal struggles crumbling under the pressure of the circumstances.
Another tune of Younger, Love & Struggle, shows, as the harpist suggests with a slightly saddening smile, that “Sometimes these two go in the same sentence”. It is an eclectic expression of what it means to be an adult because adulthood is about accepting the controversy of some concepts that do not fit into the fairy tale and embracing them with grace.
In the second set, a bass gets swapped for another bass – a bass guitar, which gives a more grounded and groovy outlook. The harp gets a bit outnumbered and takes a secondary position to give some room to the drums and bass guitar.
Brandee Younger Trio moves forward from the complex topics and provides some stellar date night material with Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby’s melodies. A romantic take on Ashby’s previously unrecorded composition You’re A Girl For One Man Only stands out and makes the audience smile. It is gracious how Younger honours the masters and stays open about the influences and inspirations within her music, because authenticity comes with learning and understanding the art of others.
This way, Stevie Wonder’s If It’s Magic hits the sweet spot – it is beautifully played and forms an easy-to-consume-and-digest arrangement. An abrupt ending on the same note adds some funny vibes to the classics and leaves space for a hidden gem of the show – reggae harp in Dust, Dorothy Ashby’s original. As they say, there is always a first time for everything, but hopefully not the last.
The photos are courtesy of Stockholm Jazz Festival and Brandee Younger.