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Brandee Younger: Celestial Blue Notes

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Brandee Younger: Celestial Blue Notes
Photograph by Erin Patrice O’Brien

When Brandee Younger was born to her loving parents, it was clear that she was a gift from God to the world. But the little girl grew into a prodigious musician and has since returned the favour to The Big Guy. And she’s done that not only by playing the proverbial “instrument of the heavens“ – the instrument that has, in one form or another, has always caught the attention of The Almighty – but it would seem that today, three solo recordings under her belt, is playing it possessed as if of The Holy Spirit.

One can be forgiven for the perceived hyperbole as, truth be told, in the spare population of contemporary harpists playing Jazz, most of whom are infinitely more experienced in their service of the instrument, Miss Younger’s musicianship is drawing more attention than everyone else’s. Indeed, for all the blue notes that she plucks out of the air between the strings, she is (already) to the harp what Milt Jackson was (or must have been) to the vibraphone in his halcyon days. Miss Younger herself insists that this (her star-power) is not the case. She is full of admiration for her American contemporaries – particularly Zeena Parkins – and when asked why she thought that all of the harpists in Jazz (in America) were women she was quick to remind me that Casper Reardon wasn’t. Showing an admiration for the harpist who played with Paul Whiteman and Jack Teagarden and was active during the 1930’s.

While Miss Younger’s attention is currently focused on legendary Jazz harpists Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane, she also expresses a certain reverence for – and, in the earlier part of her career as a composer and performer, been influenced by the great classical harpist Marcel Grandjany. The latter, a classical harpist, often graced the orchestras of Fritz Reiner, Vladimir Goldschmann, Serge Koussevitsky and George Szell (among others) and his repertoire was a big influence on Miss Younger – especially in the realm of composition, and when she first began to write her own material. It isn’t hard to discern how, or why, this had come to pass. Miss Younger was, after all, a classical harpist before she first followed her heart into the realm of Jazz music – something, it would appear, that she was destined to do.

A portrait of Brandee Younger and her harp by Erin Patrice O’Brien

All of this seems to have almost never come to pass for Miss Younger’s entry into the world of the harp was a happy accident. Visiting a friend and co-worker of her father’s one day, who had a close connection to music, the then-flutist, Miss Younger, discovered that the friend had a harp sitting in the house. She fell in love with the sound of the stringed-instrument and the rest is proverbial history. It wasn’t easy, Miss Younger says. Carrying her harp in and out of her house each time a performance date came up was a real effort. But as it takes a village – or in her case, a family – Miss Younger prevailed and was set on a path to… well plough her lonely furrow in the world of the harp.

For all the associations of the instrument with classical music some of which overflowed into Miss Younger’s history with the music and the instrument, her ears were also naturally attuned to more contemporary sounds; the rhythms of Jazz, Rhythm and Blues and Hip-Hop. Her sensibilities were awash with the waves of all of these musical styles as she absorbed lessons from playing all of the music that affected her enough to want to play all of it too. She is known to have told an interviewer that a teacher she once had – Karen Strauss, her first teacher, in fact – helped feed the flame within her by transcribing anything she liked in the realm of popular music. “I’m sure this helped me do what I do today,” Miss Younger once said.

Miss Younger also says, “Playing a number of instruments – and playing whatever I wanted to on them – helped me translate this wild penchant for braving the difficulties that the harp presented as I began to play Jazz on the harp in high school.” The ability to play across styles and blur the lines that separated each one must certainly have been instrumental I bringing Miss Younger to the attention of a variety of producers in music. It’s certainly what got her gigs with the likes of Ryan Leslie, who recommended her to the artist Cassie, and the bassist Derrick Hodge, who introduced her to Common; to Salaam Remi and most recently to Danny Bennett, Dahlia Ambach-Chapin, Todd Roberts and Mike Viola – the latter group of four being responsible for the diabolically brilliant A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper the Beatles tribute that celebrated 50 years of their iconic album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Miss Younger helped arrange (with Ravi Coltrane) and produce “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” adding her dreamy, celestial to the psychedelic aura of the famously puckish song.

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