MSU Professors of Jazz
Brandee Younger, harp
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21
The rarity of jazz harp is a draw on its own, but Brandee Younger doesn’t lug her harp down the stairs of Manhattan’s Zinc bar at 2 a.m. for novelty’s sake. Younger is a harp warrior who plays on top of, all around and deep within the music.
Younger’s Thursday gig at Demonstration Hall with the MSU Professors of Jazz promises a singular and unforgettable experience.
Whether she is leading her own quartet or playing with artists as diverse as saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, rapper Common or “beat scientist” Makaya McCraven, Younger is vibrantly omnipresent — doubling a horn melody, adding a harmony, crafting a crystalline counterpoint that melts and re-hardens in half a second.
The New York-based composer and harpist has chosen a remarkable musical path. She calls it the “department of branching out.” Only two musicians have taken the harp this deeply into jazz — post-bebopper Dorothy Ashby (“Hip Harp,” “Afro-Harping”) in the 1950s and ‘60s and the spiritually lit Alice Coltrane (“Journey to Satchidananda”) in the 1960s and beyond.
In Younger’s younger days, she heard a collection of music by Alice Coltrane, who turned the sonic storms produced by her husband, John Coltrane, into a meditative incense all her own.
“After hearing that, I knew I wanted to do something different, but I didn’t think I had enough chops to do it,” she said.
After a lesson, Younger would hand her first teacher, Karen Strauss, a cassette tape of a pop or jazz she wanted to play on the harp. Strauss copied it out for her and Younger proceeded to rock out in her parents’ living room.
It took a second, more profound encounter with Coltrane’s music to put the hook in all the way. When Alice Coltrane died in 2007, her son, Ravi Coltrane, called Younger to play at his mother’s funeral.
“He didn’t know me from a hole in the wall, but the stars aligned,” Younger said.
She found herself playing in heady company at the memorial — Ravi Coltrane, pianist Geri Allen, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Jack DeJohnette. That cinched it.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know how hard it’s going to be, musically and business-wise, but this is what I’m going to do.”
The jazz teachers at Connecticut’s Hartt School (including saxophonist Jackie McLean) cheered her on, but she still had doubts about her “chops” for jazz.
She showed up for McLean’s lessons without the harp for a long time, just to listen.
As soon as Younger graduated from Hartt, she did a pop session for Bad Boy Records, home of the Notorious B.I.G.
“All classical and jazz musicians go through this — they get a pop gig and your peers start looking at you like, ‘You’re not serious,’” she said.
But the session earned her a down payment and the first few months’ rent for her first apartment in New York City.
Working with Ravi Coltrane brought her musical path into sharper focus. Coltrane told Younger he was looking for an amalgam of his mother’s spirituality, Dorothy Ashby’s bebop-to-funk hipness and the formal, dreamy rigor of French composer Carlos Salzedo, the harpist’s harpist of the early 20th century.
That’s an impossible ask, unless you’re asking Brandee Younger.
Younger’s coruscating live album, “Live at the Breeding Ground,” gives you the feeling she can play anything. Her cogent, crisp solos leave you wanting more, but she thrives best in a bubbling group dynamic, and that’s just what she’ll find Thursday.
The MSU Professors of Jazz will join Younger on her turf — the music of Coltrane and Ashby, as well as Younger’s own compositions, including a beautiful tune dedicated to Trayvon Martin, “Awareness (he has a name).”
At MSU, Younger will not only conduct master classes in classical and jazz harp, but also advise students on musical entrepreneurship.
Her approach to the business has evolved since she was fresh out of school. She used to take every gig that came along, but after a brush with burnout, she’s in simplifying mode.
“I started to Marie Kondo myself musically,” she laughed, referring to the popular life-simplifying guru who asks, ‘Does it bring you joy?’
Now she sticks mainly to classical chamber music and jazz gigs; concertos and orchestral gigs are out.
MSU harp professor Chen-Yu Huang is grateful that Younger still gets joy from working with students. Huang has been trying to draw Younger to campus for a couple of years.
“There are not a lot of jazz harpists out there,” Huang said. “It’s technically more challenging than other instruments to play jazz, so it will be great for us to hear from Brandee about how she conquered those challenges.”
Younger said she’ll work with classical harp players in “the department of branching out.”
“My background is in classical music, so I completely understand the discomfort,” Younger said. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world to branch out.”
“Her style is so chill, very rhythmic,” Huang said. “I want to take lessons from her myself.”