Cork Jazz Festival: Brandee Younger getting the groove on

Ahead of her appearance as part of the We Got The Jazz photography exhibition, harpist Brandee Younger talks about being part of Beyonce’s Homecoming and finding the groove, writes Don O’Mahony.
Cork Jazz Festival: Brandee Younger getting the groove on

Brandee Younger: Performing at Guinness Cork Jazz Festival.

Ten o’clock in the morning seems an unnatural time for a jazz musician to be roused from their slumber to do an interview. I am reminded of a remark made by one of the contributors to Jean Bach’s wonderful A Great Day in Harlem, a documentary telling the miraculous story of how renowned photographer Art Kane managed to get 57 jazz musicians, many of the all-time greats, to show up for a 10am photoshoot in 1959. The quip was that many of these musicians didn’t know that there were two 10 o’clocks in a day. Despite just rolling out of bed for our zoom appointment, New York harpist Brandee Younger communicates infectious enthusiasm and energy.

“My camera’s not on because I look like trash,” she warns.

Younger has never been to Ireland so I take it upon myself to extend an official welcome ahead of her Jazz Festival appearance. And why not! Our national symbol, after all, is the harp.

“I know!” she shouts gleefully. “That’s why we love Ireland.”

This writer would hate to be a shill for corporate sponsors, but I point out that Guinness’s symbol is also a harp.

“I know,” she cackles. “It’s funny.”

Does she like a drop, I ask?

“I am so boring, I don’t drink beer. I’m so sorry,’ she says apologetically.

But Younger is anything but boring. As a harpist in the jazz idiom she is rarely written about without reference made to musicians who were at their peak 20-30 years before she was born, Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane. Brandee is happy to declare her debt to them, but as innovative and influential as those two were they never had one of their tracks appear in a Netflix documentary of a world famous musical icon, Beyonce.

Younger’s “Hortense” was one of two original compositions that featured on her 2011 debut EP, Prelude. Two years later, a performance of the track was captured and put online by NPR. Surrounded by shelves of animal skeletons, Younger, accompanied by her regular collaborator Dezron Douglas on double bass, play the tune in the quirky surroundings of The Evolution Store, a bric-a-brac boutique of natural history located in New York’s SoHo neighbourhood.

We did Hortense live one morning after being out all night playing, and, like, Beyonce used that, which was crazy

Younger explains: “We did it live one morning during Winter Jazzfest after being out all night playing, after two hours of sleep and, like, Beyonce used that, that actual recording, for her documentary, which was crazy. Of all the recordings to choose she chose the sleepless one happening in the taxidermy shop,” she says with delight.

“The publishing company had no idea how little or how much it would be used, so I didn’t know until I watched the documentary, and I was floored because she literally used the entire song. And used it in a very personal part of the documentary. It’s used when they are showing footage of family and friends gathering, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s so special!’

“So yeah, that part was cool. I didn’t expect so much time and at that moment.”

Younger has credited her classical training as being the foundation for all that she does, and yet, there’s an undeniable funkiness in some of her compositions.

“All of my training is in classical music, so whatever I’m doing that’s not classical I’ve learned it in real time,” she shares. “I always tell my students that I am forever a work in progress. I’ll be a student literally until the day I die, because there are so many holes to fill and so much to learn.

“Sometimes I borrow ideas from some of the standard harp repertoire, and also in the way that I play. But what’s really important to me is I want everything to have a groove. I mean that’s just me. That’s not to say that if something doesn’t have a groove it’s not great — it is, but that just goes along with my personality. This is the way I am. I want it to groove. I want people to be able to move their head to it. I want them to enjoy it and not have to listen to it intellectually, you know.”

Younger’s laidback attitude is apparent on her most recent release, Somewhere Different. Despite appearing on the revered jazz label Impulse!, home of such giants as Art Blakey, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, the harpist was assured they weren’t looking for her to create something that would fit into their catalogue.

“I knew that going in to it, that I could be myself. It’s not fitting into the mould of what made your label famous, you know,” she relates.

This allowed her to create something both expansive and effortless sounding. It’s remarkable how relaxed Somewhere Different sounds.

Pandemic, pandemic,” she trills, by way of explanation. One would have thought the pandemic would have made one pensive, but Younger felt the imperative to create something easeful.

“I think a lot of musicians often fall into this… I don’t want to call it a trap, but we often enter this space of, ‘alright, I gotta make some music. It has to be impressive. People need to know that I can either write really well, or I got chops: I could play really well.’

“None of that was my intention with this record. I said: ‘oh, my gosh, we’re in a pandemic. Can I just make some music that just feels comfortable? Can I just be selfish and make something that I want my parents and my aunt and uncle to enjoy? Like, my family.’

“And after doing those live streams that we did all pandemic long, people wanted to hear things that were just easy to listen to. So I literally removed any sort of pressure to create something that was sounding virtuosic or super complicated. I just wanted to make the most sincere and genuine and honest… it was so honest, you know,” she bubbles into laughter.

“I didn’t sit with a tune and try to complicate it. If it was three chords it was three chords, and that was okay.”

Appearing on a couple of tracks on the record is Ron Carter. The legendary double bass player has played with Miles Davis and Alice Coltrane, and if anything ruffled Brandee’s normally breezy exterior it was his presence.

“If there was something I felt pressure about it was that,” she giggles.

Her appearance at St. Peter’s Church is a solo one and it might be fair to expect a more contemplative side to her music given her performances coincide with We Got the Jazz, an exhibition of acclaimed photographer Chuck Stewart’s magnificent portraits of such artists as Alice Coltrane and Ron Carter.

“I’m really excited with the Chuck Stewart photography,” she says, “and seeing the family and everything, so this is near to my heart.”

Brandee Younger performs at St. Peter’s Church from Friday, October 28, to Monday, October 31. 

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