Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dorothy Ashby - Afro-Harping

This is one of my favorite jazz albums of all time. It's pretty amazing that it was possible to hear music like this in 1968 - in many ways its aesthetics anticipate hip hop. Listen to the opening track "Soul Vibrations" with its deep funk bass line, psychedelic theremin melodies, and Isaac Hayes style string arrangements (earlier than Hayes wrote his) and tell me it isn't perfect material for a Dilla-style chopped up arrangement. This remarkable album features the near-peerless jazz harp master Dorothy Ashby (1932-86) with an anonymous band including flute, strings, vibes, organ and many other instruments, playing a set of jazz standards in a Latin/Pan-African style. Pretty much no other jazz group I know of sounded like this in the late '60s (this is nothing like Miles Davis' fusion work at the time), though by the '70s many bands were working in a similar style featuring laid back grooviness, catchy, soulful hooks, and rhythms borrowing equally from African music and funk. There isn't a walking bass line to be found, only pure earthy grooves in short repetitive figures.

Dorothy Ashby wasn't the first jazz harpist, but she was one of only a few that achieved fame, and she was undoubtedly the most innovative. Albums like In a Minor Groove (1958) demonstrate her prowess in bebop, sounding as deft and nimble on her enormous harp as a jazz guitarist, but producing a fuller and more magical sound. Then there's The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby (1970), which is to Dorothy Ashby's discography what Ys is to today's star harpist Joanna Newsom's - it's an incredibly ambitious, sprawling masterpiece, unprecedented upon its release, with lush arrangements, multiple genres (jazz, funk, East Asian, Indian, and African traditional) crammed into one, and even singing and spoken word from Dorothy.

Afro-Harping isn't nearly so grandiose as that, but in my opinion it is her best album. Her improvisations throughout the album are very lyrical and memorable, taking a purposeful, less-is-more approach to soloing not unlike the playing of Grant Green, but more chordal and less linear. Not a single moment falls flat. The whole band gels beautifully throughout, and the percussion will have you tapping your lap. Their hybridization of funk, soul, bebop, and modal and Latin jazz makes perfect sense and still sounds fresh today, and the album at a scant 35 minutes seems to have infinite replayability. This comes with just about my highest possible recommendation; music that just makes you feel good.



Sarah said...

A great album. I've got to check out The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby...Ashby's Ys? Yes please!
(Also, awesome new header photo.)

BlazCigl said...

Just found your blog and I think I am going to be awake for the whole night :O Great job!

Christopher said...

Thank you for writing a most insightful review of one of Dorothy Ashby's most revered record albums.