Jazz Harpist Brandee Younger on 'Brand New Life,' Dorothy Ashby, and Embracing Her Own Sound

Dusty Henry

Brandee Younger is a jazz harpist who has performed and recorded with everyone from rising jazz stars like Kassa Overall to platinum-selling artists like Drake and Lauryn Hill. Her latest album is called Brand New Life. The album pays tribute to Dorothy Ashby, another Black woman harpist who paved the way for younger and a new generation of harpists. KEXP's Dusty Henry spoke with Younger to learn more about Young's connection to Ashby's music and how Ashby's impact is still felt today. 

Listen to the audio feature from KEXP's Sound & Vision or read the transcript below. 

Audio production by Dusty Henry and Emily Fox.

KEXP: So you have this new record, Brand New Life. A lot of it is paying homage or tribute to Dorothy Ashby. Tell me about your relationship with her music, when you first encountered it, and what it means to you. 

Brandee Younger: Yeah, You know, growing up as a harpist – a young Black girl – it was very isolating because there was no one that looked like me. But then there was also nothing that I knew of, harp-wise, that was represented in the music that I was listening to. So I discovered her without knowing it was her. So between Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, between listening to Pete Rock... I'm a born and raised New Yorker and listening to hip hop, all the samples, it wasn't until a little bit later that I connected the dots. I realized and started to get into her music. Not her playing on other people's music. Because all those classic Earth, Wind and Fire, Bill Withers recordings, all recordings of that period, the harp you hear is her. But discovering her own albums – she had 11 albums as a leader – she was playing music of the time, so that is what really attracted me to her.

Yes, she was Black. She was a Black harpist. She was a woman in jazz and then a harp in jazz. It's like a triple whammy. Alice Coltrane, too. It's like a triple downer, especially at that time. But she was playing... So, like, "Little Sunflower," that was a pop tune. She was basically doing what I wanted to do, but I wanted to do it in my own time.

So realizing that and discovering that was just a huge eye-opener for me. Okay, the harp can fit in these other genres and they can also sound soulful because it's very easy for this instrument to sound hokey when you take it out of how you're used to hearing it. But she really made it sound soulful. It was really funky and I was really attracted to that. So moving forward, just in my career, I studied all classical music in undergrad and graduate school. But as I started to work with a trio with my quartet, I really felt that both Ashby and Alice Coltrane were not celebrated or respected in the harp world and in the jazz world as I felt they should have. So I always made it a point to pay homage to them [at] every concert. Still to this day, you really can't leave a concert without me doing an Alice Coltrane and Ashby tune. It's always going to be a part of my set one way or another. 

KEXP: You mentioned you pay homage in your shows and clearly this album especially. You've described this album as a lifelong dream that you didn't feel like you were prepared to make until now. What made now the right time for you? 

Brandee Younger: I don't know what made now the right time other than just where I am musically and creatively. Because I did a record, Wax & Wane, just a few albums ago, which was basically Dorothy Ashby's music. And the major difference here is this album sounds like me. And when you listen to the record, it sounds like Brandee wrote these tunes or that Brandee's playing these tunes. There are a couple of originals on there but with, for example, the first track on the record, "You're A Girl for One Man Only." That's an original of Dorothy Ashby's that had never been recorded before. It's like I don't want to reproduce what she would have done. I want it to be representative of me. I want to make it my own, but still make sure that we're honoring her. Stylistically, this album really has been executed through my eyes. And the ways that we pay homage to Ashby is like... So, "You're a Girl for One Man Only" does not sound like she would have played it that way. But we've got vibraphone on there, which is something that she really... She used vibraphone in a lot of her recordings. The addition of strings in some of the tracks, the addition of the flute. We found these ways to nod to her. 

KEXP: One thing I think is interesting looking back at Dorothy Ashby's work is how it predates what somebody considered the birth of hip-hop, like 1973. Yet so much of her work has a hip-hop feel to it. I mean, she even had an album called Hip Harp in 1958. And I think a good example of that is her version of the song "The Windmills of Your Mind." Curious to hear your thoughts on those connections and how you approached your reinterpretation. 

Brandee Younger: So that Hip Harp was, like you said, late fifties and this box that just came out of the earlier records. And it's just really cool because you can hear the... What do you call it? The progression of her style. You can hear the style change. And if we go a little bit more forward to the late sixties, those are the records that were being sampled. Why? Because now we're listening to... So the earlier records, they were more straight ahead, right? Trio. Quartet. Then she added horns on The Fantastic Jazz Harp of Dorothy Ashby and so forth. She's playing lots of standards, lots of movie themes. But then these later records, Afro-Harping, The Rubaiyat of Dorothy AshbyDorothy's Harp, these records on Cadet, on the Cadet label, Richard Evans produced these. And I read somewhere in a Wax Poetics interview that he did that... He said he wanted to make this his tenure at the label he wanted to make it as Black as possible. And I just laugh. I laugh every time I think about that because when you listen to these records, they're like super Black. Like, his mission was completely accomplished.

So it's these Cadet records that have these really thick grooves, Afro-Harping got that these Afro Cuban vibes underneath all the tunes. Heavily sampled. So it's the song "Come Live With Me," that one sampled like fifty leven times. All those records. Those are the ones that have... It's like a crate digger's dream right there because the beats are so thick. 

KEXP: I'm interested in this sort of continuum of Black women in the heart. You know, you've spoken about Dorothy and you mentioned Alice Coltrane as an influence. And then today, there are artists like yourself, Nailah Hunter, Madison Calley. You've all had these breakout careers in the harp. And I know you've expressed that when you started out feeling some isolation as a Black woman harpist. Do you feel things changing or do you have a kinship with their contemporaries or just any thoughts on that generally? 

Brandee Younger: Yeah, You know, there's... Here we go. I'm older than everyone you just mentioned. Don't rub it in. So there was this period of my career where – and my colleagues that are my peers, they went that are Black, they felt it, too. Just the isolation. And then, you know, just sort of – what you call it – pressing on and trudging through and trudging through it and trudging through and then entering now this time where it's not weird to go online and to see Black harpists. And it's, for me, it's like you want a tear to fall down my face. Because I feel like even though it's not what it should be, I do feel like I can exhale. Not stop working. But it's like we work so hard to not be this rare, rare breed.

Young Black and Hispanic boys and girls shouldn't not know that this is an option for them. They should be able to see themselves in anything they want to do, including being a harpist. When you don't see yourself, you don't think something's for you. So that they can look up and see me and they look up and see all these other harpists. They don't think it's weird. So, I mean, that's the whole goal here for it to become the norm. So it's really, really heartwarming. And the pandemic really created space for us to really unite because we had all the time in the world. 

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