AFROHARPING: DOROTHY ASHBY
By Leila Winn
The first time I listened to Dorothy Ashby’s 1968 album Afro-Harping I was immediately transported to a space-age, jazz soiree in my mind. From the first note of “Soul Vibrations,” it felt like I had found a missing piece to my fundamental understanding of jazz. The album itself feels like the amalgamation of 60s coolness with a classical music element. What I found to be the most interesting part of this album was the use of the harp as the instrument leading the songs. The harp permits for a different type of sound, usually not found in a typical jazz quartet or duo. It adds a sense of mysticism and creates a type of rhythmic quality that was brand new to me.
Throughout the album, Dorothy Ashby showcases a variety of moods that the harp can create. For example, in the track "Little Sunflower", a cover of Freddy Hubbard’s composition, it adds a magical quality and an elegance that transforms the track. In Hubbard’s original version, the trumpet provides warmth and power. It serves as a rich, deep element throughout the song and drives the melodic sections of the song. In Ashby’s version, the harp adds a slickness, a coolness, and precise flourishes that complement the song. With her harp, Ashby is able to add technical depth, laying harmonies and adding new themes, solely through one instrument. I found this to be particularly impressive on the track, “Games.” On this track, the rhythmic section creates a pulsating beat which allows the melody from the harp to shine and play. The sheer skill and variety that her harp playing provides make this entire album very special.
This album is a hidden gem. It perfectly blends so many elements of 60s jazz. The Afrofuturism, the coolness, and the sheer adherence to innovation are accentuated by the technical expertise and blending of Ashby’s classical harp training. This revolutionary album is made all the more of an outlier due to the lead musician. Knowing that this amazing jazz harp album was fronted by a woman makes its existence even sweeter. In a genre where women are typically relegated to vocals, having a female musician of this caliber makes it particularly inspirational. I would recommend this album to jazz fans and novices alike. It’s a great starting point to Ashby’s discography which I highly recommend exploring as well, and it also works great as an album to study to!