Tag: poly-stylistic

Brandee Younger: A Hip-Hop Baby Transforms the Harp

Brandee Younger sitting next to a harp with the branded text for episode 22 of the NewMusicBox SoundLives podast from New Music USA

Brandee Younger has carved out a very unlikely music career for herself. A classically-trained harpist but also a self-confessed “hip-hop baby” who loves popular music, Younger deeply immersed herself in jazz as an undergrad at the Hartt School and by the time she entered grad school at NYU was already established in that scene. Then shortly after forming her own quartet over a decade ago, Younger soon became a go-to collaborator not only for jazz artists such as Ravi Coltrane and Marcus Strickland, but also for creative artists across a very wide array of genres, including multiple Grammy winners rapper Common, singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill, and R&B producer Salaam Remi.

“I wanted my instrument to fit into my personality; I didn’t want it to be limited,” Younger explained during our recent conversation. “I knew I didn’t want an orchestral career, but even as a kid I wanted to play other styles of music … Over time I finally became comfortable with blending those worlds together, but it took a long time to confidently try and put them together.”

How Younger has transformed the harp, which is typically associated with salons or angels, into such a malleable and yet still distinctive instrument seems without precedent. But she had two very significant role models in Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby. Her love for Alice Coltrane, whose cascading harp sonorities matched the intensity of the free jazz improvisers with whom she performed, began in high school when her father gave her a Priceless Jazz compilation of her recordings. She was immediately captivated by “Blue Nile” and soon thereafter asked every jazz musician she encountered if they knew her. Brandee never actually met Alice Coltrane but she was invited to play at her memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 2007. Dorothy Ashby, whom Brandee also never met (she was only two years old when Ashby died), has had an even more significant influence on her career trajectory. Ashby also led her own ensembles starting in her 20s and quickly leaped from jazz to a much wider stylistic palette that embraced a spectrum of pop and world music traditions. She even made a guest appearance on Stevie Wonder’s legendary Songs in the Key of Life and, as Brandee pointed out, has been heavily sampled in hip-hop, which is how she first became aware of her.

“The one huge HUGE thing for me in Dorothy Ashby’s music, you listen to what she was recording, she was doing music of the time,” said Younger. “She was playing whatever she wanted. She was not jazz-specific. She was playing traditional Jewish melodies. She was playing the pop tune that came out. She was playing the soundtrack of the most popular movie that came out. And to think back as a kid and what I wanted to do, I wanted to play the pop music that I heard on the radio. I wanted to play these familiar tunes for my friends and family.”

So it makes sense that Brandee Younger would want to record an album acknowledging Dorothy Ashby. But that album, Brand New Life, which was just released in April, is a far-cry from an ossified compendium of covers.

“It was really important for me to make it 2023,” Younger explained. “It wasn’t to be a tribute album, you know, it was to really celebrate her legacy but like moving along. … It was really important for me to collaborate with folks that shared a special kinship with her. And the first person to pop up was of course Pete Rock who was the first person I know of to sample her.”

Brand New Life also features a memorable contribution from Meshell Ndegeocello, who is featured on a reggae-infused version of “Dust,” an Ashby original which was originally released on her 1970 LP The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby. And Mumu Fresh, who is mostly known as a rapper, adds extremely soulful vocals to Younger’s original “Brand New Life,” the title track.

Brandee is currently on tour, her first time traveling to different cities to perform since the pandemic shut down everything three years ago. It’s been a long wait, but she won’t only be playing material from Brand New Life. She’ll also be performing her extraordinary original Unrest, a turbulent composition created during lockdown.

“We’ll be doing new music and some of the stuff from the last album,” she explained. “I also will throw in an Ashby or Coltrane tune because that’s my thing, what I’ve been doing forever. And the tour is mostly going to be trio–Rashaan Carter on bass, Alan Menard on drums. So yeah, harp trio baby.”