LIVE: Brandee Younger @ The Falcon, Marlboro, 03/20/2022

There is a real need for a “Miscellaneous Instruments” category in the various jazz awards, if only because some instruments either rarely appear in jazz or are only played by one or two people. Unfortunately, that also turns the instruments in that category into “gadgets” that some people don’t consider to be “legitimate” jazz platforms. Take the harp, for instance – not the “blues harp” of Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite, but the classical instrument most of us were introduced to by Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Any instrument that can also be used as a crossbow simply CAN’T be serious when it comes to jazz… Right? Brandee Younger says “Wrong,” and she’s absolutely right.

Photo by Rudy Lu

With two solid releases on the impulse! label produced by monster bassist Dezron Douglas, Younger is one of the bright lights that illuminate 21st-century jazz, filtering jazz and R&B sensibilities through an instrument most people only see on PBS. Younger’s smile was just as bright as she took the stage with her rhythm section, bassist Rashaan Carter, and drummer Ele Salif Howell. Mind you, that smile was covering up a bit of discomfort. “I’m wearing a pleather dress because I wanted to be cute,” she confided to us, and then moaned, “It’s ALREADY getting hot up here!” 

Nevertheless, Younger went on to turn up the musical temperature degree by degree with her own unique material, starting with a track from her second disc Somewhere Different called “Tickled Pink.” It’s an uptempo piece, but it stayed soft and sensual even as Carter funked it up on electric bass while Howell gave us a quick taste of the explosiveness he can generate. The softening can be linked to the singular sound of the harp and Younger’s sensational dexterity on the instrument, constantly finding the perfect set of notes and lines while maintaining an elegant attack that doesn’t bury you in an avalanche of notes.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Another thing that separates Younger from the other “gadget” players is the large amount of material she’s generated and continues to generate. This trio recently recorded Younger’s forthcoming third release, and she gave us a taste of what’s to come with “In Love & Struggle”, a track Younger wrote for a documentary about “the struggle of women in history.” Carter moved to double bass to accentuate the alluring melody Younger poured over us while Howell’s first major solo had us all shaking our heads at his youthful mastery.

Younger also took time to give praise to two women in jazz history that continue to inspire her: She preceded a killer take on Wayne Shorter’s “Blue Nile” with Alice Coltrane’s “Journey in Satchidananda”, and then she knocked us out later in the set with Coltrane’s “Turiya & Ramakrishna”, which got more beautiful with each pass. Younger also introduced us to the music of the late Dorothy Ashby, who brought the harp’s glistening sound to the genre in the 1950s: “Games” dovetailed with Younger’s own compositions perfectly, while the set-closer “Dust” drew us all into the piece like a welcoming smile.

Photo by Rudy Lu

As great as Dezron Douglas is as a player, Rashaan Carter should at least be mentioned in the same paragraph as Douglas. Carter proved Younger didn’t need a “traditional” foil by bringing his own brilliant sense of structure and lyric to “Struggle” and Douglas’ own composition “Spirit & Will.” Howell is a second-generation jazzer who’s been making great music with father/sax monster Richard Howell’s band Sudden Changes, but it was an eye-opener seeing him “on his own” bringing varying degrees of joyful noise throughout the night, culminating with a titanic solo on Younger’s thoughtful two-movement piece “Unrest.”It may be easy to write off the harp as a “miscellaneous instrument”, but as in all things, it’s the player, not the instrument. Both Younger’s music and her attack are so open and unadorned even as it is rich and tasty and is easily accessible without being dumbed down or over-commercialized – but I repeat myself. This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening that linked today’s music with past groundbreakers like Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, and with any luck, we’ll see future generations cite Younger as another groundbreaker who inspired them to pick up an instrument and express themselves. We can only hope they do it as soulfully as Younger did on this evening.

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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