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Into the harp-o-sphere

Harps are materializing in music well outside the classical world, including tracks by Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Björk and Yoko Ono.

Here’s a sampler of recent picks, followed by a look back at some great non-classical harp moments.

Joanna Newsom – “Have One On Me” (2010), “Divers” (2015) The arrestingly sculpted voice, steely fingers and mysterious lyrics of composer-vocalist-harpist Joanna Newsom grab you like ice tongs made of light. With one foot in the delicate world of indie rockers like Sufjan Stevens and the other in a muddy William Faulkner swamp, Newsom uses her classical training on the harp as a means, not an end, the way April uses rain.

Mary Lattimore, “Hundreds of Days” (2018); Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore, “Ghost Forests” (2018) Mary Lattimore’s “Hundreds of Days” evokes both cradle and grave in one breath, juxtaposing a prickly, sticky harp sound with spectral synthesizers and percussion. In “Ghost Forests,” Lattimore and vocalist Meg Baird layer a gritty haze of harp atmospherics over fuzzy guitars and hypnotic vocals.

Jeff Majors, “For Us All” (1986; reissued 2018) Jeff Majors trained in harp with the great Alice Coltrane and moved from jazz to gospel in the 1980s. “For Us All” is a unique fusion of trance, gospel, electronics and the Bible — cheesy, corny and uplifting all at once. Last year it was finally re-issued, complete with a harp-dusted covers of the Beatles’ “Let it Be” and the Gershwins’ “Summertime.”

More great moments in harp-dom

Dorothy Ashby, “In a Minor Groove” (1958, reissued 1992) Ashby’s light touch turns the harp into a bright be-bop butterfly — a blue morpho with a light case of the blues. She leads a nimble quartet, with Frank Wess on flute, in this unusual and generous set that makes you wish more harpists gave jazz a try.

Alice Coltrane, “Journey in Satchidananda” (1970) The psychedelic, spiritual jazz of harpist Alice Coltrane rises like incense in this classic album that takes the ecstasy jazz of John Coltrane, to whom she was married, in a completely different direction. For a dose of straighter-ahead jazz, hear Coltrane’s harp cascade over an all-star combo in pianist McCoy Tyner’s 1973 album “Expansions.”

Yolanda Kondonassis, “Air” (2008) “Ginastera: 100” (2018) Yolanda Kondonassis has recorded several adventurous albums in between a few “relaxing” ones that probably help pay the bills. “Air” is a Grammy-winning set of compositions by Toru Takemitsu and Claude Debussy; “Ginastera: 100” is indispensible for Kondonassis’ committed performance of Ginastera’s Harp Concerto, her signature work.


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