by Steven Pisano
Brandee Younger may be one of the most talented jazz musicians on the scene today. But there are many music lovers, even jazz aficionados, who seem not to have heard her name. Maybe that's because she doesn't play the saxophone, or the trumpet, or the piano, or the drums.
Younger plays the harp. That's right, the harp. Quick, who else can you think of that played the harp? You might say Harpo Marx or, perhaps the angels in heaven. Most often heard as part of a classical orchestra, the harp just does not bring to mind a long list of players. In jazz, there's Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, both of whom Ms. Younger refers to reverentially each time she performs, as if she's tried to absorb their spirits into her music in a way that you can't think about one without thinking about all three. Coltrane may have been married to one of the greatest saxophonists ever, but Ashby was the true pathbreaker, playing bebop jazz from the late 1950s through the 1960s and later, her chops just as strong as players on other instruments.
When I first saw Ms. Younger last fall playing the first annual BRIC JazzFest, she made me a lifelong fan on the spot. She more than held her own, often topping her bandmates in a strong set of hard swinging jazz. I was thunderstruck. How could a harp--a half-joke of an instrument usually confined to playing celestial glissandos--rock out as hard as a saxophone? If Younger played any other instrument, she would be at the crown of the current jazz pantheon, a jazz goddess headlining the best jazz spots on earth.
At BRIC's Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival on July 21, Ms. Younger, accompanied only by an upright bass player, displayed a more muted and thoughtful side. And yet she held the audience at the Prospect Park Bandshell spellbound with her taut rhythms and command of the material, performing compositions by Ashby and Coltrane, in addition to her own. My advice: When you see Ms. Younger playing at a club near you, you need to (politely) shove people out of the way and get yourself a seat. You will never think of the harp in the same way again.
Younger's set was a measured and magical lead-in to the evening's main performance, the full-length dance work "Black Girl: Linguistic Play," by Camille A. Brown & Dancers. Suffice it to say that the dance was superb, capturing the verve and sass of young black girls in the city trying to find their way as young women. It's worth noting that the dance was not performed to a recorded soundtrack, but was performed live by pianist Scott Patterson and electric bassist Tracy Wormworth.
(More photos can be found here.)