Brandee Younger is a classically trained harp player who you may have heard guesting with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Common, Drake and the Roots. Under her own auspices, she has been developing a jazz vocabulary for the harp, building on the achievements of Adele Girard, Dorothy Ashby, Alice Coltrane and Zeena Parkins. As well as being an instrument dominated by women (Younger’s latterday peers include Laura Perrudin, Alina Bzhezhinska, Destiny Muhammad, Rachael Gladwin and Carol Robbins) the harp is notoriously difficult for non-harpists to write for, and its music has developed largely through the experimentation of its practitioners, who are able to exploit its unique melodic characteristics and variable decay times.
Younger has recorded several albums fronting her own quartet but it is in spartan settings that you really appreciate her technique and harmonic intelligence. Force Majeure was recorded in the New York home she shares with her husband, the bassist and producer Dezron Douglas, and follows on from duets that the couple livestreamed each Friday morning under lockdown. The harp and the double bass make great sonic partners: they reinforce each other through shared resonance, and Douglas’s serpentine, busy bass lines often sound like extensions of Younger’s harp.
For all the slapdash presentation and between-song banter, this is a delightful piece of chamber music. Modal jazz classics by Pharoah Sanders and the Coltranes rub shoulders with heavenly, harmonically rich readings of soul standards such as You Make Me Feel Brand New by the Stylistics and Clifton Davis’s Never Can Say Goodbye, with Younger lurching from modal flourishes to the more chromatic, bop-influenced improvisations of Dorothy Ashby. On Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work, Younger’s tumbling phrases sound like an African kora; on originals such as Toilet Paper Romance, she shimmers like an entire string section.
Also out this month
Hawaii Hawaii Hawaii (Birmingham Record Company/NMC) is an album of compositions by Joe Cutler, the centrepiece of which is a three-part saxophone concerto featuring Trish Clowes. Part one is a piece of quizzical, fin-de-siècle romanticism; part two a cartoonish riot; part three a nightmarish slab of dystopian science-fiction, where Clowes’s tenor sax seems to serve as the sole representative of humanity.
In a Word is part of a series of “intergenerational” collaborations on the FRKWYS label, here featuring 78-year-old American post-minimalist composer Daniel Lentz and 39-year-old Canadian artist Ian William Craig. The standout moments see Craig’s androgynous, ghostly voice flutter over Lentz’s slowly mutating, Harold Budd-like piano phrases, all the time being artfully distressed by tape manipulation.
Bristol-based film composer Alexandra Hamilton-Ayres releases 2 Years Stranger (Manners McDade) an album written during an extended period of grieving. It’s based around funereal phrases played on a clunky upright piano, which are slowly orchestrated using burbling synths, washes of white noise and spartan, icy string orchestrations, all to devastating emotional effect.