Harp and soul for sounds of Alice’s wonderland

Harp and soul for sounds of Alice’s wonderland

A top Polish musician is channelling her inner Coltrane on a tour of Ireland, writes Alan O’Riordan.

The harp has a special place in Irish national iconography and history.

But apart from that, when it comes to listening to it, we’re like pretty much everywhere else: we don’t do it a lot.

And certainly not in a jazz context. But audiences around the country will be getting the chance to put that right this week, when the harpist Alina Bzhezhinska takes her quartet on tour, supported by Music Network.

Bzhezhinska started life as a student of classical music, and is a teacher now herself at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

“I learned piano from the age of five at home,” she says. “Then my parents wanted to send me to more formal lessons.

"When I went to the school to do the entrance exam, I saw this beautiful harp being carried through the hall by three or four men.

"It was incredible to see this old, gold instrument and I said to my parents, ‘I want to play that’. Everyone said I was too young, but at age seven, I was very stubborn — this hasn’t changed much!

"So, they gave in, and I was one of the first in my school who started harp so young.”

The journey was not easy, Bzhezhinska says, but she was always fired to take the harp out of the background, and explore its potential range.

Even on her first solo album, Harp Recital, Bzhezhinska improvisational bent is apparent across traditional songs, and adaptations from the likes of JS Bach.

But that side of her playing really took off, she says, when she went to the US in the early 2000s, and embraced jazz music, especially the work of Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, whom she calls “two harp pioneers”.

“When I heard Alice Coltrane for the first time on record,” she recalls, “I was almost scared of the freedom she had in her music.

"I never imagined at the time I could be as free with my instrument and express myself through the harp so fully.

"Now, I feel like I know her because I have studied everything I could find about her: her personality, her ideas, her beliefs, everything is in the music.”

Coltrane was a direct influence on the formation of Bzhezhinska’s group.

She, sax player Tony Kofi, bassist Larry Bartley and drummer Joel Prime came together in 2017, and played a concert to mark 10 years since the American musician’s death, and 50 since that of her husband, John Coltrane.

The harp in such a quartet might normally be “in the background, making vibes”, Bzhezhinska says.

“Under my fingers, I feel it is an instrument with many voices. So what I try to do with the saxophone is have double melodies in the arrangements, for example, but also to try to bring the full range of the harp into the arrangements, in the bass lines, the melody lines.

“The listener will experience something that they’ve probably not heard before, or not a lot anyway, having the harp as a miniature orchestra on stage, with the strong support of other instruments.”

That acclaimed concert led the group to record Inspiration, an album with deep Coltrane connections — it has four compositions by Alice Coltrane, one by John, and four originals by Bzhezhinska.

“We felt it was the right time to tell their story through their music,” she says. “It is not just a beautiful love story, but a musical story, one that was cut short by John’s death.”

Ironically, it was John’s death that placed the harp centrally in Alice’s musical world.

She, a piano player, was given the harp as a present by John, just before he died.

So,Bzhezhinska says, “it was some kind of symbol of his presence in her life.

"She picked it up and taught herself the instrument. It’s another incredible thing in this story.”

  • Alina Bzhezhinsk’s quartet is at Triskel in Cork on Thursday, Feb 6, and also: Feb 5, the Sugar Club, Dublin; Feb 7, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray; Feb 8, The Courthouse, Tinahely; Feb 9. St Peter’s Church, Portlaoise; Feb 10, Station House, Clifden; Feb 12, National Opera House, Wexford; Feb 13, The Dock,Carrick-on-Shannon; Feb 14, Glór, Ennis; Feb 15, Cultural Centre, Letterkenny.

    Full details: musicnetwork.ie

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